What to look for when searching for a telehealth doctor for mental health support
By Josh Cutler - Swedish, Behavioral Health
Life was stressful before the pandemic; now, many people are feeling pushed over the edge. Kids are home from school, people are being asked to work from home, or not work at all, the economy is dropping, and people that we love or work with might be sick, we might be infected. People are dying. We, as a global society, are in crisis. Maybe you’ve been thinking about getting professional help. Your mild anxiety is now full-blown, your mild depression on the verge of debilitating, your baseline of manageable stress is now overflowing. It would be beneficial to talk to a professional. You had always imagined a room with a couch and a plant and good lighting, a few feet away from a sympathetic provider, ready to hand you a tissue at a moment’s notice.
While such offices exist, that social reality is not possible at this time. We are not leaving our homes. But mental health clinics are still open - virtually. Some providers have added telehealth options prompted by this crisis, while others have been offering virtual appointments for some time. But how do you connect to these providers? A quick internet search provides a cornucopia of options that usually prompts more questions. Where do you begin? What services can you trust? What if you might need medication? Are there prescribing providers that can do an assessment and provide a prescription without meeting in person? Are virtual visits covered by my employer or health insurance? Is a virtual visit going to be as helpful as meeting someone in person? When it comes to seeking mental health support, people are usually nervous and have a lot of concerns about committing to such a personal process as a mental health treatment. There are good answers to all of these questions.
Virtual mental health care, also known as telebehavioral health, has been in use for decades. Research has shown that if appropriate procedures and safeguards are followed, that it is as effective as in-person care. Some procedures include using a HIPAA secured platform as well as a provider that has training in telehealth. Make sure the provider has a license in the state you are physically located at the time of the visit. When selecting a provider, it is essential to find someone that you feel comfortable with and who practices in proven methods that you feel will be effective. Virtual, or not, there are many types of mental health treatment out there but only some have scientific evidence that they are effective. Psychiatrists and other qualified providers can prescribe most medications virtually.
If you have Employee Assistance Program (EAP) benefits through your employer that is a great place to start, as this service is typically free for 3-10 virtual or in-person sessions. You can also connect with your health insurance plan and ask them for a list of providers that do virtual care. This will include counselors and prescribers. In addition to being paid for by your employer and a reduced (or no) cost to you, these providers are also vetted at a high level for quality by the company your employer contracts with. There are also a number of online companies that provide standalone services for a membership fee. They are typically not covered by insurance. This includes texting based treatment as well as video visits in real-time.
Computerized Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (C-CBT) is also a great option. This includes modules that you progress through at your own pace, sometimes with the help of a coach who checks in along the way. There is evidence that C-CBT is very effective in treating mental health symptoms. There are also a number of great mindfulness and stress reduction apps out there.
It can be easy to get overwhelmed with options. In this time of social distancing, we can still pick up the phone, the oldest form of telehealth. Ask your friends and family what has worked for them. Message your doctor and ask for their input. Be open about your symptoms with people that you trust. Schedule a virtual appointment. There are highly skilled mental health professionals just a few clicks away. In the mean times, enjoy the presence of those you are quarantined with, step outside and take a deep breath, and take the advice of experts on how to support our physical and mental health.