Experts discuss state of mental health care during COVID-19 pandemic
Mental health care has experienced significant changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to mental health experts who participated in a live panel discussion organized by Finn Partners.
Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America, said in a teleconference that the number of anonymous, online mental health screenings conducted by his organization has increased significantly since the pandemic began.
“We averaged, generally, at the beginning of this year about 2,000 people per day who would come and take a mental health screen, and during May, we’ve been averaging 5,000 people per day,” Gionfriddo said. “Almost immediately when worrying about the pandemic began to emerge toward the second half of February, we began to see an increase first in anxiety screening, then in youth screening and then in depression screening. As of April, in a month-to-month comparison, we were at 70% more screens being completed for anxiety and 64% more for depression than in January.”
Approximately half of screening participants cited COVID-19 as a reason for mental health problems, and loneliness and isolation were commonly cited factors, Gionfriddo noted. Further, among those who took the depression screen in April, more than 7,000 indicated that they had suicidal ideation or thoughts of self-harm at least half the days of the week, which was more than double the traditional population.
According to Dana Macher, BS, MBA, practice director of Avalere Health, access to mental health care has changed significantly during the pandemic.
“In-person visits are down by about 50%,” Macher said during the teleconference. “Mental health telehealth consults have gone from less than 1% to over 50%. CMS waivers on the use of telehealth have loosened. Commercial plans have followed that, as well. We’ve also seen, very importantly, an increase in reimbursement rates for telehealth.”
Advocates have pushed for a telehealth expansion over the past several years, especially given psychiatric and mental health provider shortages, and the rate of change in the past few months has been “dramatic,” Macher said. Although these changes will expand access to care, they will not be a “panacea” because many patients may still lack internet access.
People of color have been particularly affected by the pandemic and its societal impacts, according to Lloyda Broomes Williamson, MD, DFAPA, professor and chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Meharry Medical College.
“In many communities of color, people are underinsured or uninsured and lack access to mental health care to begin with,” Williamson said during the teleconference. “Because of this lack of access, their symptoms may be worse, and so they may lose their job and have further income loss.”
Certain communities have faced specific challenges related to COVID-19, with Asian Americans having experienced “hatred” because of virus’ place of origin and Native Americans having a lack of access to mental health resources, according to Williamson.
Williamson noted that it is important for mental health care providers to understand the specific needs and stressors individuals of color face related to the pandemic, as well as underlying stressors that may compound those that arise during this time.
Sarah Akerman, MD, senior medical director of medical affairs at Alkermes, provided an overview of her company’s priorities during the pandemic.
“Our first priority was to make sure that our employees were safe, so we instituted things like global remote work-from-home policies, transferred a lot of our health care provider interactions to virtual platforms and, for our colleagues who work on critical tasks in our labs and manufacturing facilities, we instituted additional sanitizing and social distancing practices so that they can continue to advance important research and deliver medicines to patients,” Akerman said during the teleconference.
Alkermes’ other priorities included ensuring uninterrupted access to medicines for health care providers and patients, as well as providing education and resources for health care providers through educational grants and exploring new ways to support the use of telehealth services.
“We really aim to collaborate with the community in new and innovative ways because we recognize that the only way we will all get through this is to get help to the people who need it most by working together,” Akerman said. – by Joe Gramigna
Finn Partners. Flattening the next curve - Mental health during & after COVID-19. Virtual teleconference broadcast May 14, 2020.
Disclosures: Healio Psychiatry could not confirm relevant financial disclosures at the time of reporting.