‘All of us [...] are going to need some extra support to weather this season of social distancing’

Mental healthcare professionals turn to virtual sessions during pandemic

Mon, 03/30/2020 - 3:15pm

    A recent trend arising in the Midcoast in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is the use of virtual mental health sessions, or telemental health sessions. 

    “All of us — even the most mentally well among us — are going to need some extra support to weather this season of social distancing,” said Florence Gardner of the Maine Calm Clinic in Camden. “Getting support for managing stress before it takes a toll on our bodies is also a good idea right now.” 

    In the Midcoast, psychotherapists and psychiatrists over the last few weeks have turned to video conferencing, phone calls, emails and chat services to continue providing their mental healthcare services, according to Gardner. 

    “Therapists are seeing that people are having more friction with their family members, both from the uncertainty of this time and being stuck under the same roof 24/7,” Gardner said. “We see that people are experiencing more sleep loss, fatigue, and irritability. People are dealing with a daily parade of emotions and are having trouble focusing on necessary tasks. Even people who are coping fairly well right now are feeling unmoored and wanting to create new daily routines that better meet the demands of this unsettling time.” 

    Gardner was one of the few area mental healthcare professionals that used virtual services ahead of the pandemic and told penbaypilot.com she has been assisting several of her colleagues in their transition to virtual sessions. 

    “There’s solid research that ‘telemental health’ is as effective in terms of outcomes as in-person therapy, which is to say quite effective for most people,” Gardner said. 

    The research, she said, is why Maine passed a law requiring private health insurance companies to cover video counseling the same as in-person counseling.

    During the pandemic, Mainecare and Medicare are covering remote counseling, while Anthem and Aetna are generally waiving co-pays for accessing mental healthcare remotely for the next few months, she said.

    “People will need to call their insurance company to confirm that this cost waiver applies to their plan,” she noted. “Hopefully more insurance companies will step up to the plate in this way in the coming days.” 

    Primarily, video conferencing through Zoom or FaceTime and phone calls are being used during the pandemic as a temporary replacement for in-person visitations, she noted. 

    “The technology part of this has gotten really easy — it doesn’t require anything more than a computer and an internet connection or just a phone if you don’t have those (or just prefer talking by phone),” Gardner said. “It’s hard enough taking the step to reach out to a therapist or doctor when you’re struggling, so we do our best to make sure the technology piece is not a big hurdle.”

    Gardner recommends clients create a private corner of their home for the length of their appointment to ensure they can freely express their thoughts to their mental healthcare professional without worry of others in the household overhearing their conversation. 

    “Sometimes people will get a cheap white noise machine to set outside their bedroom (there are free phone apps that do this too),” she said. “Some people set up a comfortable corner in their laundry room, bathroom, or basement if they don’t have another private space in their house.”

    Telemental health sessions can actually be more enjoyable, Gardner noted. 

    “Some actually find remote therapy easier because their dog or cat can sit with them, they can make a cup of tea in their own kitchen to bring to the session, and there’s no need to drive anywhere or sit in a waiting room,” she said. 

    Aside from the change of scenery — sitting in the familiar comfort of one’s home versus sitting in a generally unfamiliar office — telemental health sessions are generally the same as in-person sessions. 

    “By video or phone, therapists can still use creative tools like art, movement, guided meditations, role playing, and other interactive techniques,” said Gardner. “A lot of people find it’s a relief just to have a dedicated time to think about what they can do to make their situation more manageable. Many therapists incorporate the use of wellness apps and other practices that clients do between sessions, so it’s not just about what happens in sessions but also in-between.” 

    Reach George Harvey at: sports@penbaypilot.com