How Telehealth Promotes Mental Health Care For Underserved Populations

Randy Withers

By Beau Peters. Previously published on Blunt Therapy.

Image by Randy Withers and Canva.

The COVID-19 Pandemic has made clear the need for quality medical services of all kinds. This is especially true for mental health services, given the psychological stressors that a deadly virus brings with it. But what can you do when physical access to services is limited due to a worldwide quarantine? The answer, for many, is Telehealth.

Telehealth also offers a secondary benefit in that it has the potential to promote mental health care for traditionally underserved populations, as well. Whether that population includes the recently unemployed or those for whom financial hardship is a constant struggle, Telehealth has the potential to make services available to those who have traditionally suffered in silence.

Quality Mental health care is essential for everyone. It benefits individuals as well as the community at large. Mentally healthy people enjoy better interpersonal relationships, fewer health problems, and tend to be more productive workers. Mentally healthy school-aged children tend to achieve more and have fewer disciplinary problems. Mental wellness promotes stable marriages, decreased crime, and drastically reduces illicit substance use.

Although most agree that mental health care is essential, access remains limited in lower-income or rural communities. A study found that many low-income communities have a mental health treatment facility, but they were “less likely to have any office-based practices of mental health specialists.”

This means that many of the early problems a physician or counselor can spot may go undiagnosed until they become more severe, necessitating hospitalization. Collectively, lack of access in poorer communities correlates with higher crime rates and substance misuse.

The Coronavirus And Mental Health

People suffering from mental health conditions may be at most danger during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who suffer from anxiety or depression may now be stuck at home indoors for extended periods of time. Grim, daily news accounts about the pandemic can make existing mental health issues worse.

People who suffer from mental illness need access to regular counseling sessions, monitoring, and treatment more than ever.

A Tech-Based Solution

Despite the problems, the coronavirus pandemic has also brought a light of new hope for the underserved or rural communities who lack access to a mental health counselor or practitioner. Telehealth, a remote medical service using video chat or computer technology, is the answer.

Most households and professionals were mandated to stay home to reduce the risk of contracting or spreading the virus. Because of this, many mental healthcare professionals turned to telehealth as a way to safely continue patient care. Patients found the alternative a viable option to get the help they need without a long wait for a therapy appointment or risking a visit to an office. In fact, virtual healthcare visits may top 1 billion before the end of 2020.

Virtual care visits can provide vulnerable populations who have a higher risk of developing severe medical problems due to a lack of quality healthcare the chance to get the help they need, right from their homes or from other facilities like shelters.

Online Counseling Is Cost-Effective Telehealth

For those unfamiliar with telehealth, imagine: You may be feeling unwell and would like to be seen by your provider. You call for an appointment only to find out you may have to wait three weeks to be seen. If you live in a community with fewer options, you may have to wait longer.

Instead of waiting for a mental healthcare provider to magically appear in your community — which may never happen — you can turn to online counseling services. Online counseling is a natural progression from more traditional forms of telehealth such as providing telemedical care in fields like pediatrics, urgent care, or even vision care.

These visits are conducted via internet-connected devices such as computers or mobile phones. Images and documents can be uploaded or downloaded securely as well in order to facilitate care and diagnoses.

These same practices and principles apply to online counseling. For patients of Cigna, behavioral therapy can be administered via a virtual network of mental healthcare professionals who are matched to a patient through a patient portal. The patient can then video-conference with the behavioral clinician in order to provide more immediate care.

This is just one mental telehealth model that can be leveraged to serve communities that have limited access to in-person care.

For patients who struggle not just with access but with affordability, there are cellphone applications and websites that provide free or lower-cost therapy options. is consistently at the top of multiple lists of best providers and starts at $40 a week. Like many others, it provides counseling via messaging, live chats, and even phone sessions.

The choice should be made based not only on access and affordability but on specific needs. Some platforms are better suited to depression or anxiety, others to teenagers or couples.

Access To Coverage For Care

The government has stepped in to encourage health plans and insurance providers to provide telehealth options to their subscribers. Besides encouraging private health insurers to adapt to the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the administration added telehealth services as an approved way of seeking care for Medicare patients, and this includes psychotherapy as a Part B-covered service.

Thus, roughly 62 million Medicare recipients now have access to telehealth. It’s a good sign for disenfranchised communities, who represent a large portion of Medicare recipients and the most likely to suffer most from substandard care.

If you have private insurance and are unsure if you are covered for virtual counseling, your best bet for the most current information is your provider. Given the constant changes because of COVID-19, looking for information online is likely to lead you astray.

Telemedicine is beneficial for all involved. This alternative can be more cost-effective for patients and for insurers. As more practitioners use technology to collect and access patient healthcare information and operate from a lower-cost location or their home to treat patients, the savings can be passed on to their patients.

Telehealth: A Light At The End Of The Tunnel

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating, it is responsible for speeding up the use of online counseling. Its growth is due to the growing number of quarantined persons seeking mental healthcare while ensuring that they don’t put themselves in jeopardy of contributing to the pandemic. Telehealth has proven to be a useful way for patients to get the mental health treatment and advice they need for other issues.

Disenfranchised and low-income patients may benefit the most from the rapid evolution of telehealth. With the administration’s green light so that Medicare recipients can now seek remote mental health treatment, patients with mental health issues or other conditions can finally get the consistent and quality healthcare they need.

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Board-Certified and Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor and Addictions Specialist. I write about mental health, therapy, substance abuse, and recovery. All opinions are my own.

Charlotte, NC

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