Therapists face challenges as coronavirus limits in-person help

More therapists are treating patients over phone and video chat.

March 17, 2020, 11:48 AM

While elected officials and private companies are imposing strict measures to keep people physically safe from the effects of the coronavirus, health experts say more needs to be done to make sure people’s mental health stays strong during these uncertain times.

Self-isolation and business closures have forced therapy providers around the country to cancel their in-person sessions for the near future. Dr. Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, predicted the need for therapy will rise because of stress from social distancing, news coverage of the coronavirus and the decaying state of the economy.

"When people are concerned about the very basic stuff in their lives, it is destructive to their very well-being," he said.

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Humphreys and other experts said that there are accessible options for current and new patients to access while the outbreak goes on, but the government and companies can do more to help the neediest.

Several social workers and therapists around the country told ABC News they will be treating their patients over the phone or through videoconferencing. Humphreys said studies have shown that virtual sessions are as effective as an office visit.

Since mid-February, when the coronavirus outbreak began in the U.S., Talkspace -- a video therapy service -- saw its user volume jump by 25%, according to a company spokeswoman.

Dr. Neil Leibowitz, the chief medical officer for Talkspace said the costs for tele and video therapy services have made it easier for people to seek professional help. At the same time, mental health providers are good at adapting their sessions under the current circumstances, he said.

"A lot of the treatment can be adapted in terms of how a client can be treated to what they are dealing with," he said.

PHOTO: A woman gestures during a therapy session.
A woman gestures during a therapy session.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

With new modes of therapy, however, come new challenges.

While there are health insurance companies that cover therapy, some don’t fit the bill for tele and video sessions, according to Humphreys and other mental health professionals who spoke with ABC News.

Humphreys added that some therapists are limited in the number of patients they can treat remotely since most therapists are only licensed to practice in one state.

"You may have a situation where you have a city with a lot of therapists on the border of a rural town in the neighboring state, and none of those providers can help the town," he said. "The government should consider waiving those restrictions temporarily."

Humphreys said he is also concerned about the state of patients with extreme mental health issues such as addiction and depression. Face-to-face contact is key for their recoveries, especially in the early stages, according to Humphreys.

"Those small actions -- the holding of hands, the hugs [and] the wiping away of tears -- those are very important," he said.

A representative for the General Service Office of Alcoholics Anonymous for the U.S. and Canada, which provides resources and support for AA groups across North America, said some groups did hold in-person meetings while others used tele and video conferencing tools.

Local AA groups have also set up contingency plans including "creating contact lists and keeping in touch by phone, email or social media; meeting by phone or online," to ensure that members are getting help, according to the representative.

Humphreys recommended that if anyone knows of a friend, co-worker or family member who is feeling mentally and emotionally vulnerable to reach out and provide any support they can. While it is not as substantial as professional therapy, those minutes on the phone or video chat go a long away, he said.

"When someone indicates [to their friend] that they are willing to talk it out and hear it out, it makes it easier for people with mental health issues to reach out and seek help," he said.

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