The coronavirus is driving a mental health crisis. Tech can help tackle it
The emerging and yet untold toll of COVID-19 is so far-ranging that it’s hard to grasp. But one fast-rising threat has me deeply concerned: The coronavirus isn’t just ravaging bodies, it’s creating a mental health crisis.
COVID-19 is the proverbial perfect storm of stressors. They include everything from job loss, economic instability, and food insecurity to the uncertainty of when (or even if) life will return to normal. Social distancing is key to protecting our physical health, but social isolation can take a toll on mental health. At the same time, caregivers are juggling greater demands, in close quarters, and under trying circumstances. And of course, there’s the fear of getting sick or dying from the novel virus, and of losing loved ones to it. Alcohol misuse and suicide are expected to rise as people struggle to cope.
In a national survey released by the American Psychiatric Association in March, 36% of respondents said that COVID-19 was seriously impacting their mental health; 48% were anxious about getting infected; and 57% reported concern that COVID-19 will seriously impact their finances. Another indicator of the current state of mind: Express Scripts reported a 34% increase in anti-anxiety medication prescriptions between mid-February and mid-March of this year.
People tend to keep their mental health issues from others. While the stigma of mental illness has decreased in recent decades in the U.S., it is still deeply ingrained in our culture, and in ourselves. Just because you can’t see depression or PTSD on an X-ray or in a blood test doesn’t mean these aren’t real—and very serious—conditions that require treatment. Depression and anxiety disorders left untreated can affect people’s education and livelihoods; together they’re estimated to cost the global economy $1 trillion each year in lost productivity.
One challenge with mental health conditions is the delay in recognizing them and seeking treatment. It can take from six to eight years for those with mood disorders to seek treatment, and from 20 to 23 years for those with anxiety disorders to do so, according to a 2015 study. Yet people might turn to resources online earlier, even if they are not ready to ask another human being in-person.
In this time of uncertainty what people need is simple: Access to reliable information and the ability to get help if they need it. The reach of this pandemic is unprecedented for modern times, but so too is the reach of the Internet in sharing lifesaving information on treatment and prevention. And part of making sure people have access to quality information, of course, is safeguarding people from misinformation. When people come to Google or YouTube to learn about COVID-19, we’ve been able to surface information from authoritative sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), for instance.
But for all the ways the Internet has become such a critical source of authoritative information about the crisis already, it can help bring the same level of attention and access to information to mental health, too.
While COVID-19 has been devastating, it’s had one surprisingly positive impact: The fast-growing availability of telehealth services. Though the earliest crisis hotlines date back to at least the 1950s, only recently have mental health care services become widely available via technology. Now, in large part due to social distancing, old barriers to telehealth—including lack of consumer awareness or limited insurance reimbursement—are falling away as insurers and regulators make it easier for people to receive professional mental health care help via phone, video conference, and even chat. A growing number of online provider platforms such as TalkSpace and BetterHelp have risen to the fore to help those with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other conditions to get the care they need, remotely.
In March, the government enacted new laws to waive restrictions on Medicare and state Medicaid reimbursements for telehealth services, including for mental health, during emergencies such as COVID-19. These changes should extend to after this public health emergency subsides because consumers who have discovered telehealth care will expect—and need—ongoing access.
Online platforms can also take steps to make it easier for people seeking out information to take action. There’s a disconnect that prevents people from getting the mental health care they need but online platforms are uniquely positioned to help bridge that gap. For example, Google Search is surfacing clinically-validated online screeners when people look up depression and PTSD that securely ask some of the same questions a mental health professional would so that people can be more informed—and encouraged to seek help. Technology can—and should—help move people towards action, whether it’s through online platforms connecting people to mental health services that might work for them or starting a conversation on mental wellbeing and mental health.
COVID-19 is an invisible yet deadly virus; so, too, are mental health disorders invisible and potentially lethal conditions that need to be diagnosed and treated. Just as the U.S. public health infrastructure may be strengthened from lessons learned during the pandemic, this is our opportunity to use technology to help people get the mental health care they need, now, and in the future.
Dr. David Feinberg is vice president of Google Health, a former child psychiatrist, and former president and CEO of Geisinger. Follow him on Twitter.
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