Access to healthcare has been a challenge for many people even before the Covid-19 pandemic. And access to mental health services can present even bigger challenges. But that is coming into focus thanks to technological advances, generational changes and a little star power.
Pop star Selena Gomez recently announced plans to launch a new venture called Wondermind, which aims to connect people with educational resources to help end the stigma around mental illness.
Gomez’s effort is only the latest step in making mental health care open and available to people who need it, without the onus that many have faced in seeking help.
“I think the shame around it is mostly gone, certainly for people in the younger generations,” said Hollan Pugh, owner of Front Porch Counseling, a Daytona Beach-based provider of mental health services. “It’s no longer an issue.”
Pugh said greater appreciation of mental health needs has made it easier for people to seek assistance, and it shows in the number of clients Front Porch Counseling serves.
“We’ve been very busy,” she said. “In general people are having generalized anxiety disorder pretty much about everything.”
And the past two years have only exacerbated the rise in anxiety.
“I think from the start of Covid people were incredibly isolated, lonely and scared,” Pugh said. “And as the country became polarized in terms of what to do about it, people who maybe had good foundational relationships with significant others, family members or friends found themselves sharing different opinions. That became its dynamic of struggle.”
Pugh said as mental health treatment becomes more socially acceptable, more people have sought help and there are a variety of techniques they can employ.
“There are easy and effective tools to address difficult emotions that don’t require a therapist. My favorite is the emotional freedom technique (EFT),” she said. By gently tapping on various parts of the body (face, torso and hands) with compassionate attention to the emotion, we activate the acupressure points for emotions and simultaneously reduce the intensity of the emotion. This works for an emotion… anxiety, anger, sadness, shame or fear. People are amazed at how efficiently this works and there is no need to wait for a month to see a therapist or spend hundreds of dollars.”
“Essentially you are connecting to the parts of the body that release emotions,” Pugh said. “When I teach people that, it is pretty incredible how quickly they can use it.”
According to a report from the National Center for Biotechnology Information of the National Institutes of Health, EFT is an effective therapy.
“EFT has been extensively investigated for anxiety and depression. In the first large-scale study of 5,000 patients seeking treatment for anxiety across 11 clinics over a 5.5-year period, patients received either traditional anxiety treatment in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), with medication if needed, or acupoint tapping with no medication,” the report said. “An improvement was found in 90% of patients who received acupoint tapping therapy compared to 63% of the CBT participants. Only three acupoint tapping sessions were needed before an individual’s anxiety reduced, while an average of 15 was needed for CBT to show results.”
While the Covid-19 pandemic created a greater need for mental health services, the rapid adoption of virtual meeting platforms provided a solution that allowed people to access services. For many providers, the advent of virtual therapy was a new frontier, but for IMPOWER, an Orlando-based provider of telehealth mental health care, it was the normal business model.
“We went virtual about nine years ago,” said Amy-Erin Blakely, Vice President of Behavioral Health at IMPOWER. “We do drug prevention programs in schools and we also work a little bit in child welfare and adoptions.”
Blakely said because IMPOWER offers virtual therapy they can provide services anywhere in the state.
And when the pandemic hit and people started to shelter in place, access to healthcare in general and mental health services in particular became a challenge.
“The pandemic gave us an influx of patients [who] needed services [and] would no longer be seen by their regular practitioners,” she said. “We had a huge influx of clients that we’re still trying to catch up with.”
Among those new partners are AdventHealth and Flagler County Schools. The Palm Coast hospital announced an agreement with IMPOWER earlier this year to allow staff physicians to refer patients needing mental health services to IMPOWER.
“We are thrilled that our patients will be able to access counseling and other mental health care through IMPOWER right from their laptop or smartphone,” said Ron Jimenez, AdventHealth Palm Coast CEO, in a media release. “We want to break down the stigma around seeking help in this way and also make it as easy as possible.”
The agreement with AdventHealth followed an earlier arrangement the company made with Flagler Schools to provide mental health services.
“Flagler Schools worked to establish what is known as Memorandum of Understandings with community agencies in an effort to address the mental and emotional well-being of Flagler students and families,” said Brandy Williams, coordinator of counseling services for the school district. “Currently, there are nine active MOU providers for Flagler Schools. The MOUs specifically state that the Board has a policy of encouraging collaboration with community agencies to expand awareness and service to students and families. The community agencies contribute services at all schools to students who may experience behavioral/emotional problems, family problems, or indications of substance use. Flagler Schools is committed to providing appropriate services for school-age children through the MOUs with these community agencies.”
Williams said the district also has an employee assistance program to help employees find the services they need, including access to confidential counseling.
Blakely said the lessening of stigmas around mental health treatment and the use of virtual technologies to provide patients access has also created a need for more mental health professionals.
“Our biggest problem right now is hiring to keep up with demand,” she said. “It’s challenging, but we’re chipping away at it, we are making progress.”
Blakely said in addition to overcoming the stigma surrounding mental health services, some people also can have difficulty using the technology to access care.
“People shouldn’t be afraid of using technology for their healthcare,” she said. “It’s the future of healthcare and the window of access.”
Blakely said the success of telehealth services in the mental health arena is proof that technology can help overcome the challenges of providing care.
“I think we want to look at the healthcare delivery system just like we look at our online banking or Amazon deliveries,” she said. “With all of these conveniences, we are using technology to bring things to us quickly.”
And it can do the same for a wide variety of healthcare services, including mental health, Blakely said.