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Technology Might Be the Answer to Mental Health Crisis

A variety of app-based and other online services now allow anyone with an internet connection – or access to one – to receive help without having to find, travel to and afford a traditional therapist.

It’s no secret that America is suffering from a mental health crisis. According to recent studies, 43 million Americans suffer from a mental-health condition, yet only 57 percent of American adults have no received treatment.

Even worse, a disturbing 76 percent of youth with severe depression – 1.7 million kids – do not receive treatment. Is it any wonder that our prisons are bursting at the seams with the mentally ill? In fact, the 365,000 people with mental illness who are currently behind bars far outnumber those in hospitals.

Why aren’t people with mental illness better treated in a nation with so many resources to help? Many can’t afford proper mental healthcare, while even more can’t access the proper providers. Others may be suffering so much from their mental illness that they are unable to take the needed steps to seek help.

Plenty have offered possible solutions to the problem, but little action is taken to help America’s mentally ill. However, like with so many other facets of life, technology might provide an answer – not only in America but around the world.

A variety of app-based and other online services now allow anyone with an internet connection – or access to one – to receive help without having to find, travel to and afford a traditional therapist. While these healthcare apps have received some criticism for claims they can treat physical ailments without an exam, many of them are being embraced by the mental health community.

‘There is a lot of evidence that many patients with mild-to-moderate mental health conditions benefit from online therapy modalities,” said Dr. Jan Orman, general practice service consultant at the Black Dog Institute, told newsGP earlier this year. “They give GPs another option in mental health treatment planning over and above prescribing and referring.”

Why is online therapy – also known as telepsychology, e-therapy or cyber counseling – so promising? It counters several issues that can often prevent the mentally ill from seeking proper treatment, including:

Accessibility

While the United States has one of the world’s larger populations, its residents are also one of the most geographically dispersed. Therefore, Americans living in rural areas – especially those located the furthest distance from a metropolitan community – have limited access to healthcare. And while most small towns have at least one general practitioner, psychiatric care is even harder to access.

Rates of depression also tend to be higher in rural areas, making the lapse in coverage even more significant. If a psychiatrist is located hours away, it’s especially unlikely that someone suffering from mental illness will seek help. In Durango, Colo., for example, the 2017 suicide rate was three times the national average.

“It’s unrealistic to think that live psychotherapy can be provided to all the many depressed patients living in rural areas,” Ronald Kessler, McNeil Family Professor of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School, said in a report for West Virginia University. “Too few psychotherapists reside in these areas. Travel times are prohibitively long to the nearest therapists. And telephone psychotherapy providers are in short supply. Online cognitive behavior therapy is a practical solution to these problems that will be effective for many patients.”

It’s not only those living in rural areas who lack access to mental health professionals. The elderly often are unable to transport themselves to medical professionals, particularly if none are located nearby.

In 2010, seniors accounted for 13 percent of the U.S. population, a number expected to increase to more than 20 percent by 2029. If an elderly person needs to see a variety of doctors to treat common health conditions associated with aging, mental health might not be at the top of that list. Online therapy could counter that problem.

“Part of what’s often called ‘digital health’—such as wearables, sensors, robotics, driverless cars and telemedicine tools that have potential to improve the quality and safety of elder care,” Jim Watson, partner at the BDO Center for Healthcare Excellence and Innovation, told Policy & Medicine. “These technologies have the potential to grant seniors greater independence by allowing them to stay at home for longer, lower costs system-wide, and provide patients increased access to doctors, their loved ones and care providers.”

Stigma

One of the greatest obstacles preventing those with mental-health conditions from seeking treatment is the stigma associated with their illness.

The brain, just like any other part of the body, can become sick; and there should be no shame associated with seeking help to cure that illness. But media reports and age-old beliefs often tell the general population otherwise.

Ironically, most traumas caused by a mentally-ill person result from those who don’t seek treatment, but those acts only do more to keep others with similar conditions at home. Further, the fear or paranoia of judgement can only agitate any underlying anxiety.

“I believe much of the stigma related to seeking help for mental health issues stems from a few issues,” Dr. Greg Lengel, Drake University psychology professor told the Times-Delphic. “First, there is a lack of information and accurate media portrayals of mental illness and psychotherapy.

“In addition, personal, familial and cultural beliefs and norms can shape and bias one’s opinion about mental health treatment,” Lengel added. “For example, someone who believes that a depressed or anxious male should ‘man up’ and ‘deal with it’ on his own might stigmatize someone seeking help—or, if personally affected by depression or anxiety, might avoid seeking help or self-medicate in a maladaptive manner.”

Online therapy practically eliminates the chance of stigma, however. Those meeting with their psychologist on the Web or through an app have no reason to fear being seen coming in or out of a mental-health clinic.

Further, the patient can speak freely without any fear of being overheard by another in the office, increasing their feelings of comfort and perception of confidentiality. Plus, by meeting with a therapist from a favorite sofa, bedroom, man cave or other “safe space,” that sensation of safety and security is only enhanced.

Affordability

There’s little doubt that one of the greatest hurdles medical patients face is the means to afford a physician or other caretaker. That obstacle is only greater when dealing with mental health, since many insurance plans offer diminished mental-health coverage – or none at all.

While e-therapy isn’t free, it can be vastly more affordable than traditional counseling. A variety of apps are available with a standard fee of $40 or less.

Some even accept insurance, so those with sufficient coverage can still take advantage of the technology. No longer will money stand between a mental health patient and adequate psychological treatment.

Do Your Research

Of course, just as there are practitioners who are better than others, not every e-therapist will be an outstanding counselor. But try not to blame the technology if you don’t click with your first psychologist.

Plenty of patients have needed to visit multiple therapists in person before finding the right match, and online therapy is no different. However, with online therapy those trial and errors won’t cost you half a day to discover that he or she wasn’t the right fit.

Just as not ever psychologist will work best for every mental-health patient, not every website or app will be the best for each individual. Be sure you do your homework on any service’s reviews and professional affiliations before making an appointment. And try to decide what works best for you.

Are you most comfortable with a phone call, a video conference or simply texting? You might know in advance, or you might need to try them out first.

Just remember, there’s no failure if you don’t find the best fit during your first try. Don’t be afraid to investigate another option. You’ll likely find it worth the effort in the long haul.

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