23 Jul Why Telehealth Matters, by Kelly Christ, North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center intern
In the age of COVID-19, seeing a health care provider in the traditional office setting has become a potentially dangerous matter. Many health care providers, including doctors, mental health professionals and others, have closed their physical sites for their clients’ safety.
But a viable, necessary alternative has emerged in the form of telehealth, which refers to the use of communication technology such as cell phones or laptops to access health care services remotely.
North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center seamlessly pivoted to telehealth after our offices were closed in mid-March, and we’ve been seeing clients for individual, family and group therapy since that time. We’ve found some unexpected benefits of telehealth, including the ability to bring together family members who may have lived apart; getting insight into a client’s home life; and seeing clients who, because of illness, lack of transportation or other issues, cannot come into the office.
In addition, many individuals in need of mental health services may hesitate to get help, or even avoid it altogether. This can be for a variety of reasons, including (but not limited to) an inability to afford the services or the pervasive stigma surrounding mental illness.
Unfortunately, a delay in receiving these services can have devastating effects. Without help, the situation often escalates, and it can even grow into a matter of life and death. As Andrew Malekoff, executive director of the Guidance Center, explains, “Access delayed is access denied.”
Malekoff highlighted the value of telehealth in a recent Long Island Weekly article, where he emphasized recommendations for New York State to permanently remove barriers to telehealth services after the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided. He noted the experience of Vanessa McMullan, a clinical social worker at the Guidance Center, who discussed her recent experiences with clients and the benefits of telehealth in a variety of circumstances.
In one example, McMullan noted that many new mothers may delay mental health treatment out of fear that they may expose their vulnerable babies to illness or due to a lack of supervision for children at home. Given the pervasive nature of postpartum depression and other maternal mental health issues, this resistance can be highly detrimental to the mothers and their families. As McMullan explains, “These women are typically those who need services the most.”
With family therapy in particular, therapy sessions via video calls allow therapists to have a new sense of connection and intimacy with their clients. Therapists are able to see into the client’s home life and are able to understand more of their context than when in a removed office setting. The ease of online visits also enables the inclusion of family members who may be difficult to include in a traditional therapy setting, such as separated parents living in different areas.
Increasing access to telehealth services could also allow young adults attending college away from home to maintain a relationship with their local therapist, thus preserving the work that has been done.
While telehealth tools are not a perfect replacement for face-to-face sessions, they are undoubtedly a necessary service that enables accessibility of mental health care, and they should remain an option for the future. Accessibility of these services is more vital than ever, with rates of anxiety and depression rising rapidly amidst the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now is the time to utilize all tools at our disposal to ensure that clients who need care can receive it in a timely manner.
At North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, accessibility to mental health services for all is a central mission of ours. For more information, we invite you to learn more about Project Access, an initiative designed to identify obstacles to accessing necessary care and finding solutions for change.