Harnessing telehealth for better mental health care
The silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic is that seeking mental health treatment became much less stigmatized, and mental health care access has expanded through more available tools. In fact, since the start of the pandemic, most people agree that society has become more comfortable using telemedicine for therapy (63%), using digital tools to improve mental health (58%), and engaging in mental health discussions (56%). October 10 was World Mental Health Day, which is an important moment to recognize this achievement, but also to highlight that we must do more to expand access to all communities in need.
Meeting the demand for care
For many, the pandemic introduced and magnified health anxieties, catalyzed major lifestyle shifts and increased isolation. A CVS Health and Morning Consult study found six-in-ten (59%) Americans have experienced concerns about either their own mental health or that of family and friends, a 9%-point increase since April 2020.
As the need for care increased, digital tools played a crucial role in closing access gaps – especially in mental health. For instance, among Aetna’s commercial members, 58% of outpatient mental health visits were done via telemedicine in 2021, up from 49% in 2020 and less than one percent in 2019. Year to date in 2022, the use of telemedicine remains strong at 55%. It is not surprising that this trend has continued as telemedicine has proven to be particularly effective for mental health care as it allows for greater convenience in connecting with a provider, and it can be a good option for those who may be apprehensive about receiving this kind of care in person.
Reaching those in need, equitably
However, while the pandemic sparked a dialogue about the importance of mental health, not every community has been able to obtain care equally. While use of mental health services among White adults (with any mental illness) was 46.3%, only 29.8% of Black and 27.3% of Hispanic adults with any mental illness used mental health services. This is a gap that we need to close. To help, CVS Health has launched several efforts to expand access to care, especially digitally.
For example, during the pandemic we launched a program called Here4U, which is a virtual peer support group, facilitated by a licensed clinician, that addresses the importance of mental wellbeing. These groups, which we’ve tailored toward specific communities such as Black women, LGBTQ+ youth and working moms, allow participants to discuss life challenges, changes at home, or other pressing issues and events. Following participation in a Here4U group, individuals have expressed that they felt heard and understood, and appreciated the ability to connect with their peers. Being able to discuss life’s challenges with others in similar situations can be extraordinarily helpful and encourages those in need to seek further care.
We’ve also continued to expand access to therapy within local communities across the country. Patients can get same-day depression screening appointments at all CVS MinuteClinic locations, as well as in-person and virtual mental health counseling services in select states. These professional mental health care providers can conduct an assessment and offer personalized treatment plans and counseling that address feelings of stress, anxiety, grief, depression and more. CVS Health also provides a wealth of publicly available mental health guides – with an emphasis on Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) youth - screening tools to help anyone get a quick read on their emotional health and other resources on CVSHealth.com.
Leveraging today’s tools and knowledge for a brighter tomorrow
Americans are more open to accessing mental health resources, and technology makes them more accessible than ever before. Still, there is more work to be done in eliminating the stigma of mental health and expanding access to all populations. Members of the healthcare system, employers and other community leaders can help by initiating conversations about mental health, prioritizing treatment as they would for a physical ailment and using all available resources to ensure factors like income, location and mobility don’t impede access to critical care.
Article written by: Cara McNulty, President, Behavioral Health and Mental Well-being, CVS Health; and Taft Parsons III, MD, Vice President & Chief Psychiatric Officer, CVS Health.