The pandemic forced many people to shift to telehealth for their mental health needs. Online therapy, or “telehealth,” for mental health care can be very effective, and while we’re emerging from the pandemic, it may remain a great option for people. Telehealth also presents challenges for patients and providers, but we are finding solutions.
First, let me clarify what I mean by “telehealth for behavioral health treatment.” Telehealth and telephonic services for mental health treatment is not new; it was developed years ago to bring health care to people in remote areas. What telehealth means is real-time, audio and video-enabled sessions with behavioral health providers in urban, rural or suburban settings. These virtual visits can take place in one’s home, an office or any other private location for a phone or video conversation.
The pandemic, as we all know, changed everything. We had seen nationally that the use of telehealth was gradually increasing, aided by smartphones, tablets and people’s growing comfort level with technology. But prior to the declaration of the public health emergency in March 2020, telehealth use by Idaho Medicaid members was minimal. For example, in April 2019 only 206 Idahoans had received telehealth services under the state’s Idaho Behavioral Health Plan managed by Optum Idaho. One year later, and one month into the COVID-19 lockdown, the number had skyrocketed to 15,046 people, which is a 7,204 percent increase.
If you’re using telehealth for the first time, one of the major challenges is the transition from talking to someone face-to-face to talking to someone on a screen. It may be awkward at first and you likely won’t feel “in-sync,” but this can also lead to breakthroughs. People receiving telehealth from the safety of their own home can feel more comfortable. This can lead to people being more willing to reveal, confront and release traumatic experiences or details from their past.
Not all providers offer telehealth, and you should check with your provider, but many of those who do try to make the virtual experience as close to the in-person experience as they can.
— Some therapy platforms use a combination of messaging, audio and video. If you have options, it’s worth exploring what combination works best for you.
— Because telehealth is accessible in a different way, there are unique things you can do to integrate it into your daily life, like sharing written gratitude lists or texting during especially stressful times.
— One of the greatest benefits is the fact that you can do it anytime, anywhere. But you should set aside space and time so you can avoid distractions and engage with this process fully.
— We also hear from Optum Idaho providers that the convenience of telehealth is resulting in fewer client no-shows as compared to pre-pandemic rates.
Here’s how you can help in the telehealth process:
— Communication is key. Your therapists’ ability to read your physical cues is something you might take for granted. It’s going to be tougher for them to do that virtually. You need to practice naming your emotions, reactions and needs more explicitly.
— Don’t be afraid to give your therapist feedback. Don’t undermine them, but you should be an advocate for yourself.
— Be on time to your appointments. Treat it just like an office visit and be respectful by being on-time. Everyone is juggling work-life balance during the pandemic, providers included.
Also, if you’re having a behavioral health crisis, Optum Idaho has crisis lines that serve both members of Idaho Medicaid and the public with emotional support and professional referrals. For Medicaid members, call the Optum Member Crisis Line at 855-202-0973, which operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you’re hearing or speech impaired, use the T-T-Y number 711. For any Idahoan who is struggling with anxiety, depression, or any behavioral health issue, Optum Idaho has a Public Toll-Free Helpline at 866-342-6892. That also operates 24/7 and is staffed by master’s level social workers who can provide confidential emotional support and resources for anyone 18 and over.
Dr. Dennis Woody is a pediatric neuropsychologist providing support to Optum Idaho’s Medical team for care management and has been with the team since 2013. Before coming to Optum, Dr. Woody practiced in Idaho for 27 years with an emphasis in consultation for children and adolescents with neurodevelopmental, neurological and behavioral health concerns.