Health experts across the country are sounding the alarm, that we are in the middle of a mental health pandemic. Depression cases are increasing, showing rates have tripled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond the physical impact and health fears brought on by the virus, economic and lifestyle factors have also continued to contribute to the mental health crisis.
Affecting young and old, the closing of businesses and schools, job losses, and cancellations of milestone events such as proms or graduations, have all had an impact. In fact, 46% of parents said their teen showed signs of worsening mental health and job loss contributed to an increase in rates of depression or anxiety by 53.4%.
Now, with the delta variant making its way through the U.S., many of these disruptions still exist to some degree for many people. As depression continues to be a serious concern and rates rise, the demand for behavioral health professionals and treatment is increasing despite a shortage of these specialists.
According to Hank Drummond, Chief Clinical Officer at Cross Country Healthcare, “We know that crisis such as this one are known to increase mental health and addictive disorders, however the unprecedented and widespread impact of COVID-19 on our finances, social isolation, economic turmoil, and our health has led to an increased need for behavioral health.”
While the mental health effects of COVID-19 have clearly impacted the general public, there are also segments of the population at even greater risk. This is true of the one in five U.S. adults who already have mental health conditions, the millions of Americans with opioid use disorders, those struggling with alcohol and other substance abuse, and certain demographic and geographic factors. Perhaps one of the groups at most risk is our healthcare providers on the front lines.
“We have already seen that many of our own healthcare providers are suffering themselves from the stress and trauma of caring for patients amid the pandemic. Given their risk of exposure to the virus, fear of infecting and caring for loved ones, longer work hours, and the emotional toll of caring for sick or dying patients makes them particularly susceptible to mental health concerns,” says Drummond.
Increased Need for Virtual Behavioral Health Services Today.
Prior to the pandemic, telehealth was underutilized for mental health services. However, that trend has more than reversed itself since the pandemic. A recent study examining mental health telemedicine claims from January 2020 to February 2021 showed a:
- 6,500% increase in telehealth claims for behavioral health services
- 3,000% increase in telehealth visits for anxiety
- 2,500% increase in telehealth visits for depression
- 1,400% increase in substance abuse care in telehealth
These findings, among other research studies, verify that mental health telehealth visits increased dramatically in just one year.
“There is little question that America has become a nation desperately in need of virtual therapy,” says Drummond. “However, this growing demand is putting strains on the health care industry trying to play catch up in the use of telemedicine for behavioral health services.”
Adopting telehealth continues to be a paradigm shift for behavioral health providers, including psychologists, psychiatrists, licensed clinical social workers and licensed practicing counselors, among others. According to Drummond, “As more health care systems, hospitals and online mental health companies continue to experience a massive surge in behavioral health services, we believe many will need to meet that demand by introducing new services, accelerating the opening of such services, and bringing more behavioral health professionals on board,” says Drummond.
Long-Term Need for Behavioral Health Post-Pandemic.
There have been barriers in the past that have limited access to behavioral health services. For example, in 2018, among the 6.5 million nonelderly adults experiencing serious psychological distress, 44% reported seeing a mental health professional in the past year. Compared to adults without serious psychological distress, adults with serious psychological distress were more likely to be uninsured (20% vs. 13%) and be unable to afford mental health care (21% vs. 3%).
One of the biggest factors contributing to limited access to behavioral health is a current shortage of mental health professionals, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even despite the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that helped address the increased demand for behavioral health by including a $425 million appropriation for use by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there remains a shortage of behavioral health professionals due in part to the surging demand for such services.
A lack of behavioral health professionals is most pronounced in rural communities in the U.S. In fact, the U.S. has an average of 30 psychologists per 100,000 people and 15.6 psychiatrists per 100,000 people. Yet, over 115 million people in the U.S. live in designated Health Professional Shortage Areas where the ratio of mental health professionals to residents is smaller than 1 per 30,000 people.
“We must begin to prepare and plan for a long-term demand for behavioral health support by ramping up hiring of professionals, increasing the use of locum tenens particularly in rural areas, and improving our telehealth capabilities to deliver these much-needed services,” says Drummond