How COVID-19 Will Change Mental Health Care In The Future

It's possible the coronavirus pandemic may have one positive impact after all.

Bent Not Broken is a look back on the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has disrupted our mental health, plus advice on how to manage our well-being moving forward.

There won’t be a ton of great outcomes from the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the millions of people who’ve gotten sick and the hundreds of thousands who’ve died, the entire population has been thrust into a mental health crisis that may take years for us to overcome.

That said, the increased mental health awareness that has developed during the COVID-19 pandemic may also propel us into a more positive future when it comes to therapy and how we view emotional struggles — that is, if we recognize what we can gain from this horrific year and fight for the few positive things that are developing as a result.

Here are just a few ways the coronavirus pandemic will transform the way we treat mental health in the future:

Conversations around mental health are becoming more normalized.

We’ve come a long way over the last few years in terms of reducing the stigma around mental health. However, we’re still nowhere close to where we should be. The pandemic has drastically affected our emotional well-being in numerous ways. Many people ― specifically those in older generations ― are starting to realize that mental health issues can touch anyone.

The pandemic has made it so everyone has experienced some degree of what it feels like to have worries or sadness. They might not all have a mental health disorder but this pandemic has been hard and everyone has experienced or is experiencing something,” said Jessica Gold, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis. “To me, that has made it easier for people to open up and talk about mental health and has cracked the door for conversations that normalize mental health experiences.”

And more people will feel comfortable getting help.

Alfiee Breland-Noble, a psychologist based in Washington, D.C., and founder of the mental health nonprofit the AAKOMA Project, said she believes we’ll see a “significant increase in utilization” of mental health services following the pandemic.

“Even after this, there are going to be so many more people who are comfortable with the idea of seeking out care,” she said. “Every day I’m seeing someone talk about how therapy is a good thing. We’ll see an explosion in numbers ― across all demographics ― of people who are increasingly willing to utilize therapy.”

“The pandemic has made it so everyone has experienced some degree of what it feels like to have worries or sadness.”

- Jessica Gold

Teletherapy will become a bigger fixture.

Most therapists had to move their practices online when the world shut down ― and that might not change anytime soon. Experts believe that virtual services will become even more commonplace, either through video sessions or even through texting or messaging.

“Teletherapy will be a much more common part of the mix in how our profession delivers care,” said David Scharff, a co-chair of the American Psychoanalytic Association’s COVID Advisory Taskforce. “That is mainly a good thing because it provides more flexibility in delivery and can reach out-of-the-way places that have been underserved.”

There will initially be a shortage of mental health care providers ...

The examples above are already contributing to a challenge we haven’t really seen before. Recent data has shown the demand for therapists has increased exponentially over the last year. Mental health professionals are struggling to keep up, and many don’t have availabilities for months, Breland-Noble said.

While it’s great that people are seeking help, the lack of supply is a huge problem. This specific issue is also compounded by the fact that access to mental health care in this country is already so abysmal. Financial constraints, a lack of providers who specialize in treatment needs for people of color, and few therapists in rural areas have been huge barriers to care in the United States for decades. The pandemic has only made these issues worse.

This perfect storm of access problems worries experts. More people are finally opening up to the idea of mental health treatment (something that has typically been extremely stigmatized) but might not be able to get it when they need it most.

I think we are at a turning point where if we continue the momentum people could be more accepting of mental health issues, but the system is very, very broken and could turn people off ― especially when flooded with such high need ― and that does scare me a bit,” Gold said. “I would hate for people who finally asked for help to be turned away.”

... But the pandemic could eventually yield to increased access to therapy.

“I think this is going to change licensure for providers,” Breland-Noble said, noting that previously, therapists had to get licensed in each state in order to provide mental health care there. “Now, since COVID, there are these temporary permissions ― and I feel like they’re gonna become long-term practices ― where you can get licensed in like 14 states. And why is that? Because there’s currently a shortage.”

So, for example, if someone lives in a rural area of Nevada (where mental health access is already minimal) and is looking for a Black therapist, that patient could have more options if therapists could get multi-state licenses. This is something experts have been wanting for a long time, and they hope this temporary practice is here to stay.

I hope licensing changes in the long run so that telehealth can be offered more across state lines,” Gold said.

We’re going to need to do a lot more than just what’s outlined above in order to address the mental health crisis that has emerged over the last year. We’re going to need government responses that address issues brought on by the pandemic, like unemployment and housing insecurity. (Gold pointed out that there is currently no one serving on the national COVID-19 task force who specializes in mental health.)

The pandemic has disassembled and altered our lives in unimaginable ways, all of which can contribute to mental health problems. This may not be completely reversed, but improvements in mental health care can certainly make the toll less burdensome.