As social distancing transformed society in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, anxiety, loneliness, depression and other ailments took a toll on people’s mental health. Several statistics highlight the impact the pandemic had on people’s well-being:
- Anxiety and depression increased by 25 percent in the first year of the pandemic, according to the World Health Organization.
- The ratio of the U.S. population that reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder jumped from 1 in 10 adults in 2019 to approximately 4 in 10 adults during the pandemic, according to health-focused nonprofit organization KFF.
Telehealth social work soared during the pandemic, and it remains a popular alternative to in-person sessions, particularly for those seeking mental health support. Telehealth social work’s benefits include improved access, convenience and continuity of care.
Benefits of Telehealth Social Work
The medical field has become increasingly aware of the importance of treating mental health conditions, but gaps in access and affordability persist. Organizations have used technology to make it easier for people to access mental health services and help address today’s mental health challenges. What are the biggest benefits of the boom in telehealth social work?
Enhanced Access to Care
Before COVID-19, physicians, patients and insurance companies already considered some telehealth services safe and effective. In many cases, this type of care offered similar outcomes to in-person services. But telehealth use was still limited — a Merritt-Hawkins survey reveals that only about 18 percent of physicians offered telehealth services in 2018, mainly to reach individuals in remote or rural areas.
Since the onset of the pandemic, telehealth services, including mental health therapy, have supplied improved access to many who need it. For example, telemental health via videoconferencing in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system increased 442 percent. Employers are also looking to play a role in addressing the issue of mental health care access. In 2020, 91 percent of large U.S. employers planned to offer telemental health within the next year, and this number may grow to 96 percent by 2023, according to a Business Group on Health survey.
Convenience and Flexibility
Telehealth technology offers flexibility: Participants can meet anytime. They don’t need to plan their commuting time to and from the session or find a caretaker for a child or older adult living at home, and they can limit the amount of time they need to take off from work for a session. Plus, they can schedule urgent appointments more easily.
Telehealth technology is also convenient: Where a person lives no longer has to dictate whether they can access certain mental health services. As long as they have access to mobile phone technology and video conferencing tools, an individual can meet with a social worker or other mental health care provider, whether the provider is located just on the outskirts of town or hundreds of miles away.
Improved Continuity of Care
During the height of the pandemic, telemental health services lowered barriers to improved continuity of care. It allowed providers to continue delivering treatment and services to their patients without increasing either party’s risk of exposure to COVID-19. Patients received vital support to help them cope when feeling overwhelmed by anxiety, isolation and stress.
Thanks to the effectiveness of telehealth social work in helping ensure continuity of care during times of crisis, providers and patients have greater trust in it.
Potential Downsides to Telemental Health
While the benefits of telehealth are clear, it does have potential downsides. An inherent disadvantage is that telehealth can feel impersonal to patients — or providers — who prefer the human element of in-person interactions. Other more nuanced issues include the following:
Misunderstanding the Ethical and Legal Impact
For individuals looking to leverage the benefits of telehealth social work in their practice, a potential downside is the consequence of not considering the ethical and legal implications of delivering telehealth services. They need to first make sure that they’re properly licensed and insured to provide such services.
For example, U.S. government policy has helped expand coverage for mental health services. But regulations allow only licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) enrolled in Medicare to be reimbursed for telehealth services rendered.
Telemental Health Services Consolidation
Inadequate social worker staffing in some communities and rapid telemental health adoption can increase the risk of the monetization of telehealth social work. If the services are left in the hands of a few powerful corporations, telehealth providers may become less focused on the health and well-being of patients. Such outcomes could compromise social work’s professional standards and ethics.
Technology is useful when it’s available — but when people lack access to devices or high-quality broadband, telehealth platforms are useless to them. Additionally, patients with disabilities or brain injuries may not be able to use or benefit from telemental health services, and homeless individuals may not have health insurance or income to pay for them.
Limited Choices or Preferences
Honoring a person’s dignity and essential worth is core to social work. If telemental health becomes the main mode for providing mental health services, that development could hinder a patient’s ability to self-determine the experience they prefer based on their own culture, language or abilities.
Make a Global Impact With Telehealth Social Work
Mental health conditions often lead to disability, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). They’re also a leading cause of suicide among 15- to 29-year-olds and premature death for individuals with severe mental health conditions. This is why WHO includes mental health in its Sustainable Development Goals, which focus on creating a better future for everyone.
Given that social workers need an M.S.W. to become an LCSW, they should consider opportunities to advance their education. Enrolling in an academic program like Virginia Commonwealth University’s Master of Social Work (M.S.W.), which is available in an online format, can help prepare them to pass the necessary exams to become an LCSW and expand their knowledge to make an impact on a global health challenge.
Explore how Virginia Commonwealth University’s M.S.W. Program can help you take part in the mission of improving the lives of individuals and families, regardless of where they live or the type of care they need.
American Hospital Association, “Redesigning Care”
Business Group on Health, “Large U.S. Employers Accelerating Adoption of Virtual Care, Mental Health Services for 2021, Business Group on Health Survey Finds”
Frontiers in Psychiatry, “Expanding Access to Social Support in Primary Care via Telemedicine: A Pilot Study”
KFF, “The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use”
KFF, “Telehealth Has Played an Outsized Role Meeting Mental Health Needs During the COVID-19 Pandemic”
Merritt Hawkins, “Survey: Physician Practice Patterns Changing as a Result of COVID-19”
National Association of Social Workers–California, “8 Ethical Considerations for Starting a Telehealth Practice”
National Association of Social Workers, Telehealth
National Association of Social Workers, “Telemental Health: Legal Considerations for Social Workers”
National Institute of Mental Health, “What Is Telemental Health?”
Qualitative Social Work, “Telehealth: Friend and Foe for Health Care Social Work”
Social Work Today, “How Social Workers Can Adapt to Teletherapy”
Telemedicine Journal and e-Health, “Rapid Increase in Telemental Health Within the Department of Veterans Affairs During the COVID-19 Pandemic”
World Health Organization, “COVID-19 Pandemic Triggers 25% Increase in Prevalence of Anxiety and Depression Worldwide”