Covid-19 has changed mental health treatment as we know it

The Covid-19 pandemic has left a lasting impact on mental health treatment.

Many have attributed the pandemic to adverse effects on everyone’s day to day life starting last spring and mental health has been a topic at the forefront of that discussion. Is it possible that there could be a lasting positive impact on mental health and mental health treatment because of the virus, despite the immediate negative impact we have seen over the last year?

There has always been a stigma around therapy and mental health treatment. Broader discussion surrounding mental health and online treatment have been two commanding factors in why that may be beginning to change.

“I use to have a patient that would park his car two parking lots away and then walk to my office so that nobody would see his car in the parking lot of a counseling place,” said licensed therapist Alice Griffin. “When people get on here and nobody has to see it outside of insurance claim numbers, I think it opens a lot of doors.”

People may believe they will be perceived as weak or dysfunctional if they seek treatment, thus not motivating them to go out and seek the help they need, especially in person. This may be because they don’t want to be seen going to their sessions or they simply don’t have the motivation to go to them.

“Stigma kills. It does. It really does,” said Megan Rochford, former licensed therapist and current program director at the National Alliance on Mental Health Cleveland. “That is why it is important to have these conversations so that people know it’s okay to get treatment and it’s actually the best thing you possibly could do.”

The stigma is slowly being broken from mental health treatment and people that receive it and part of this could be because of the pandemic. Before the pandemic began, young people had already been more accepting of the benefits that counseling and therapy provide, but the shared struggle of the past year has done even more to bring mass attention to it.

When the pandemic hit last year and the reality that we’d be in it for the long haul set in, discussion immediately began surrounding what a world of lockdown, isolation and tragedy would do to people’s mental health. People have died by the masses. Limited human interaction became the norm and for a period of time it was seemingly rare to see anyone aside from who you live with at all. People were out of the office, losing their jobs or closing their businesses entirely. 

“We were seeing there were kind of two pandemics at the same time,” said Rochford. “One was the Covid pandemic and the other was a mental health pandemic. People were experiencing an unusual amount of stress during an epic event of historic proportions. They were losing their jobs, losing their housing, losing their contact with loved ones and a lot of it was due to the pandemic itself. They were getting sick, losing their health, having their loved ones die. That put a lot of pressure on people and how stable they were, how optimistic they felt about their future and the ability as a country to overcome those stressors.”

The fear of paying next month’s bills became far more real during this period. The loss of loved ones and the overwhelming fear of a deadly virus that government officials did not take seriously was looming over everybody’s heads. Everybody on the planet shared the same struggle as one another, and for perhaps the first time ever, there was a universal sense of empathy that has turned the topic of mental health into a more honest and open discussion. 

“The pandemic affected everybody, so any issues you had before were kind of amplified because you were alone all the time or with your very small group of people who were also going through things,” said Layla Fetter, who resumed counseling after two years in November of last year. “That made me feel like I kind of needed to go back, along with other things going on in my life.”

Despite the shared struggles of the previous year, suicide rates dropped by 6% during the pandemic, the largest drop in over four decades according to preliminary government data, indicating that something must have had a positive effect on people.

“Although people felt a lot more stressed by these things, at the same time we saw that suicides dropped by a statistically significant amount,” said Rochford. “One theory is that maybe because of access to telehealth people could get help more easily and so they did. They could stay in therapy more easily and so they did. I really hope that telehealth continues because I believe it has made an enormous difference especially for people who have barriers to access like transportation, childcare, a work schedule, or illness.”

Telehealth is online treatment and was not the norm for mental health patients prior to the pandemic. Initially used during the pandemic as a way to maintain social distancing, telehealth treatment has become an effective way to treat people who wouldn’t otherwise attend in person.

“Half of the people love it, they love that they can just turn it on and off at home,” said Griffin. “I had people doing it from home and kids doing it from study halls and people really liked that.”

For some, the ability to receive counseling from home provided an added sense of comfort.

“The fact that I was able to go frequently without having to drive to an office and make time like I would normally have was really convenient,” said Fetter. “I think that the relationship has been pretty much equal to the therapy that I had before. If I’m being honest it was probably even better because when I was in person having to drive and do a lot to see my therapist I would basically put up walls before I even walked in and I wasn’t really getting much out of it.”

CDC mental health statistics show that as the year 2020 progressed more people were seeking counseling or therapy. Adversely, more people needed counseling or therapy and did not receive it as the year progressed as well. The number of people that needed counseling and did not get it peaked in mid-December, while the number that received counseling rose around the same time before taking a dip at the beginning of 2021, eventually peaking in early March.

This would mean as the year progressed more people were reporting that they felt treatment was needed, and eventually more people would end up seeking it. An indication of the stigma beginning to break; however, there is still work to be done in getting more people to receive treatment instead of avoiding it.

“What we’ve seen here at NAMI is that people have been really engaged in alternative ways of getting help,” said Rochford. “We put all our support groups online and people can sign up on their phone, so they do. The great majority of people we serve really like that, but there is always going to be a small group that thinks ‘it’s not my thing’ or ‘that doesn’t really work for me’. We’re hopeful that as the year goes on we’re able to get back to in-person sessions or whatever they are comfortable with, but for now we are seeing a lot of success with our online support groups.”

Based on the numbers, it seems that in some ways the virus caused a shift in how we view and treat mental health and mental health patients. Mental illnesses are starting to be viewed as real illnesses and, despite the stigma, more people are allowing themselves and others to seek help than ever before. It seems as though the new norms are going to stick when it comes to mental health treatment.