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TELETHERAPY HELPING MORE COPE

Bringing mental health services to new populations

By Radhamely De Leon

After experiencing a particularly difficult breakup during the coronavirus pandemic, Dionne Smith decided to look into therapy for the first time in her life.

“The breakup was the catalyst,” Smith recalled. The 36-year-old Bronx resident found herself having more trouble coping than usual due to quarantine restrictions. “Not being able to be active and go out and hang out with friends, or be distracted, definitely impacted it.”

Smith is not alone. Everyday stressors such as relationships or work have only been compounded by the isolation of quarantining. Many are now finding relief through televisits with trained mental health professionals.

A recent study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that 29% of physicians reported seeing more clients now than before the pandemic. Psychologists also reported a 74% increase in patients being treated for anxiety disorders and a 60% increase in patients being treated for depressive disorders.

Standice Melvin, a licensed professional counselor and CEO of the mental health agency Benevolent Family Services in Norfolk, Virginia, has noted an increase in clientele in her own practice.

A lot of people really just did not do well with isolation. We have a lot of parents who are struggling with constantly being at home with the kids and still having to work and maintain a family.

Standice Melvin

CEO, Benevolent Family Services

“A lot of people really just did not do well with isolation,” Melvin said. “We have a lot of parents who are struggling with constantly being at home with the kids and still having to work and maintain a family.”

⇒ cont. While the shift to telehealth hasn’t been seamless, Melvin described it as a “game-changer.”

“It allows providers to see more people, it makes it less intimidating for the clients, and more cost-effective for offices and more,” she said. “The pandemic has shown us that we can use virtual connections to get things done. That will not change.”

 

According to Melvin, some insurance companies have incentivized using telehealth for providers by paying more per meeting. Melvin also stated that many companies, including her own, are waiving co-payments for clients making it easier for them to utilize their services.

Another study conducted by the American Psychological Association also showed that more people were reportedly experiencing race-related stress following nearly daily political protests after the police killing of George Floyd in May. Of the Black adults surveyed, 78% agreed that being their race is difficult in today’s society and 67% said that discrimination is a significant source of stress in their lives.

More Blacks accessing mental health resources

“We are making sure that people feel included because telehealth is available. I found so many more Black men accessing resources, mental health support, which is amazing. I have spoken to a lot of Black women who have sought out counseling, who’s never sought out counseling before because telehealth is making it easier,” said Melvin.

The process of seeking out mental health resources can be difficult to manage considering the way Black Americans and other people of color have historically been discriminated against and barred from health care.

Between 2010 and 2018, the uninsured rate for Latinx Americans remained over 2.5 times higher than the rate for white Americans, and the uninsured rate for Asian Americans increased from 2.4 to 2.9 times higher than white Americans, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Black people remained 1.5 times more likely to be uninsured.

While insurance companies have adapted some policies – Zoom, the center of pandemic socializing, is now HIPAA compliant – they have not completely addressed the gap created by employer-provided health insurance and this year’s high unemployment rates.

But overcoming these bureaucratic hurdles doesn’t include the added burden of “shopping” for a therapist.

After starting a new job, Smith made sure that therapy would be covered by her insurance. She sought out two different therapists but felt “a bit disappointed” by both.

The breakup was the catalyst.

Dionne Smith

Teletherapy patient

However, Smith said she’s committed to finding a therapist and beginning her mental health journey.

“That’s my goal by the end of the year,” she said. “I think it’ll increase my toolbox to deal with all kinds of stuff. I think now it would be more focused on stress and anxiety.”

 Changing how New Yorkers view mental health 

The national quarantine and shift to telehealth are changing the way some people view their mental health. As New Yorkers enter their second lockdown, they once again face the frustrations and lack of routine that come along with it, but teletherapy may make it a bit easier to deal with this time around.

Yonkers resident Amanda Cruz, 23, resumed therapy during the pandemic for the first time since she was 12.

“During the pandemic, we were all forced to face ourselves and the people within our households,” she said. “All we had time to do was observe and analyze, so this was a huge moment of revelation.”

Looking back, she felt her upbringing in a Puerto Rican-Dominican household had impacted her perception of mental health.

“I think our generation was forced to notice the pattern because of how many more resources we have,” she said. “So, the pressure [is] on us is to finally break these cycles.”

Cruz plans to continue therapy into the foreseeable future, perhaps even after the pandemic. She said that one aspect of therapy that people often “underestimate” is the ability to talk about your issues without fear of judgment. “Just the act of speaking your feelings out loud can help you.”