By Jody Kashden, Ph.D.
For people living with mental health disorders, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a unique set of challenges. Not only has the pandemic exacerbated feelings of fear and anxiety, but it also has disrupted how individuals connect with each other, including with their therapist.
Maintaining a human connection, however, is critical to maintaining your mental health and key to treating disorders such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. At Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health, the transition to telehealth during the pandemic has enabled patients to connect virtually, ensuring they continue to have access to the programs, care, and human interaction they need.
Millions of Americans
Millions of Americans are affected by mental health conditions – most commonly depression and anxiety – every year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). As NAMI reports, 1 in every 5 adults living in the United States experiences some form of mental illness, while one in every 20 experience serious mental illness. In addition, 17% of young people ages 6 to 17 experience a mental health disorder.
Though everyone is different, in general, warning signs of a potential mental health disorder can include:
• Feeling sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks
• Drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality, and sleeping patterns
• Irritability and uncontrollable anger
• Difficulty concentrating or staying focused
• Substance abuse
• Inability to carry out daily activities or handle problems and stress
• Excessive worry or fear
• Feeling as if your quality of life is not what you want it to be
• Thoughts of suicide, self-harm, or attempted suicide
If you’re concerned about your mental health, talk to your doctor or consult a mental health professional. Once diagnosed, many mental health disorders can often be effectively treated with therapy, medication, or a combination of the two.
It is also important to note that individuals without a mental health diagnosis can benefit from therapy and counseling too. Therapy can support personal growth and can help with a range of issues such as communicating effectively, managing expectations at work and school, even public speaking.
Telehealth Shows Positive Outcomes
Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health offers inpatient and intensive outpatient treatment programs that are customized to meet the needs of children, adolescents, and adults, with specialized programs for men and women. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Princeton House has been providing intensive outpatient treatment programs via telehealth.
Through the use of a secure video conferencing platform, patients are able to participate in individual and group therapy sessions from the comfort and safety of their home. In addition, through telehealth, patients have virtual access to medication check-ins with psychiatrists, family meetings, and yoga, music, and art therapies.
Telehealth utilizes video conferencing, which provides the ability to see body language and expressions. This helps patients and therapists maintain human connection while social distancing. The use of telehealth has also expanded the availability of mental health services for patients who have trouble accessing in-person care because of issues such as distance or transportation. Early research among adult Princeton House patients shows that there is no difference in treatment outcome between in-person therapy and teletherapy.
Adult Princeton House outpatient survey results indicate:
• 94% feel that receiving virtual treatment is helpful
• 63% would consider using virtual treatment even if in-person treatment was available
Tips for Effective Telehealth Sessions
Typically to participate in telehealth, patients must:
• Have a smartphone tablet, laptop, or desktop unit with a camera and microphone
• Have access to the internet
• Have a quiet space in which to connect with treatment
Other tips for an effective telehealth session include:
• Set the scene. Find a space with minimal distractions. Center yourself on the screen so you are visible from the waist up, enabling your therapist and other participants to see your body language. Sit up tall with your device’s camera at eye level. Use soft, diffused natural lighting when possible.
• Arrive on time. In fact, give yourself a few extra minutes to transition to your telehealth session from whatever else you were doing beforehand.
• Stay present. Avoid multitasking. Close out other programs or apps on your device to limit distractions. Put a “Do not disturb” sign on your door.
• Dress appropriately for a public setting.
• Hydrate. Keep a glass of water nearby and make sure to take a sip every now and then.
• Do a test run with the technology before your first session so you know it works.
• Don’t forget you’re on camera. Even though they’re not physically in the room with you, people can see what you’re doing.
Here to Stay
Throughout the pandemic, telehealth has helped patients with mental health disorders feel less isolated and has provided a connection with others through these challenging times. Even when the pandemic subsides, it is expected that telehealth will be here to stay.
Most insurances, including Medicaid, cover telehealth services.
For more information about Princeton House Behavioral Health telehealth services, call 888-437-1610 or visit www.princetonhouse.org.
Jody Kashden, Ph.D. is the Senior Director of Clinical Development and Performance Improvement at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health.