It has become clear in recent weeks that COVID-19 is creating a mental health crisis that could outlast the virus itself. Emergency telemedicine measures put into place by the Baker administration at the outset of the pandemic could help address the issue, if they are made permanent.
Stay-at-home orders have led to more social isolation at a time of widespread economic insecurity and concern about contracting COVID-19. Those in treatment for depression or anxiety have found themselves cut off from traditional one-on-one or group therapy. Others are feeling unrelenting stress for the first time, and are wondering how to get help.
As the pandemic moves from spring to summer, more than 4 in 10 Americans say its effects have harmed their mental health, according to a poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Crisis centers are seeing 30 to 40% increases in requests for assistance, and helplines are being flooded with calls.
“There’s no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic will be the most psychologically toxic disaster in anyone’s lifetime,” George Everly of the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said Tuesday in an interview with Pew Charitable Trusts.
“This pandemic is a disaster of uncertainty,” Everly said, “and the greater the uncertainty surrounding a disaster, the greater the psychological casualties.”
The Baker administration took a strong step in addressing the issue in March when it issued an executive order requiring insurance providers to cover telehealth visits as they would in-person sessions for the duration of the state of emergency. The response has been overwhelming as those suffering mental distress have reached out to get help via video chat or telephone call.
Half of the 500,000 telehealth visits Blue Cross Blue Shield has processed over the past six weeks have been for therapy and mental health issues, Ken Duckworth, the company’s associate medical director for behavior health, told WGBH last week. Before COVID-19, he said, there were very few such visits.
Duckworth called it the wave of the future. But whatever progress is being made now risks being lost. Insurance companies must continue to cover telehealth visits — including mental health sessions — the same way they do in-person meetings even after the state of emergency is lifted.
Mental health parity has been slow in coming, at least in Massachusetts. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, the state Legislature has the opportunity to make real progress in ensuring all the health needs of its citizens are being met during a time of crisis.