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Telemedicine therapy sessions take off in Virginia as need for mental health services increases

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Posted at 7:07 PM, Sep 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-14 19:07:19-04

RICHMOND, Va - A study lead by VCU researchers has found a 12-fold increase in the use of tele-psychology nationwide since the coronavirus pandemic began. The boost in using technology during therapy session coincides with increased demand for mental health services.

Brad Pierce, a doctoral student with the VCU Department of Psychology, said a few years ago he began to want something more than his career in technology was giving him.

“When somebody would come into my office or just talk, that felt like oxygen for me. That was a signal to me that, okay, something is missing,” Pierce said. “One of the things I’m interested in is how technology is serving the psychology needs of the public.”

Pierce and a team of researchers surveyed more than 2,600 clinical psychologists across the U.S. to see how much they were using virtual tools prior to the pandemic and just how much that has increased.

The survey found before social distancing guidelines began in earnest, a little more than seven percent performed clinical work through tele-psychology. Since then, more than 85 percent reported using either phone or video conference technology to help patients.

“I expected it to be high, but not that high,” Pierce said. “The use of tele-psychology increased up to 85 percent, that includes 67 percent of psychologists conducting all of their work with tele-psychology.”

The need for social distancing and policy changes to allow for wider use of technology for psychologists were the biggest factors for the change, Pierce said. Still, the study found more than one-third of psychologists said they plan to continue that work once COVID-19 restrictions are loosened.

Even though virtual tools increase access to mental health care professionals, Pierce said they are not effective or accessible for every person who seeks professional therapy.

“It’s really important for them to have a conversation with me with the person who they’re working to find out: is this working for me? Is this right?” he said.

Still, the only way to get help is to seek it, so Pierce said anyone who feels an overwhelming sense of stress, anxiety, or sadness for days on end should consider reaching out to a professional.

“Our research is showing that there is a higher prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms for people around the world. That’s happening for so many different reasons.” he said. “If I hit my head or something and felt something wasn’t right, I wouldn’t just rub some dirt on it and walk it off. You’d want to go get some help. That’s the way I feel with mental healthcare as well.”

The study was published in the journal of American Psychologists.

Click here for help seeking mental health services, in Virginia.