How Teletherapy is Making a Difference in Underserved Communities

Aarushi Pant

Teletherapy is making mental health care more accessible for people in underserved communities

Main image courtesy of National Council for Mental Wellbeing.

Teletherapy is mental health counseling that is offered over the phone or online. They follow the same format as a traditional appointment would, but are instead more accessible and convenient by allowing you to meet with a mental health professional from the comfort of your own home. 

A whopping 97 percent of Americans own a cellphone of some kind, and about 85 percent own a smartphone. This makes it so much easier for people to be able to access clinicians through online programs, which is where teletherapy comes in. 

Barriers to treatment

illustration of hand reaching out to help woman
There are a lot of challenges that can discourage people from seeking treatment for their mental illnesses. Image courtesy of Boulder Magazine.

When it comes to mental health and seeking treatment, the costs can often be exorbitant, especially if you’re opting for services such as ongoing therapy or psychiatrist appointments. Many people don’t have insurance coverage, and even with insurance, treatment can be expensive. Medicare and Medicaid have expanded to cover more mental health services, but many are still not covered, and patients are forced to pay out-of-pocket. 

It can also be a struggle for many people to actually get the mental health services that they need. Transportation barriers can make it difficult for people without cars to get to mental health counselors, especially when other forms of transportation such as public transport are unreliable or just unavailable. This is particularly relevant in rural communities, where residents often live miles away from the nearest mental health treatment center. 

These challenges disproportionately impact marginalized communities throughout the country that desperately need mental health care and treatment. The numbers are sobering —  11 percent of U.S. adults with mental illness have no insurance coverage and 55 percent of U.S. counties do not have a single practicing psychiatrist. 134 million people live in a designated Mental Health Professional Shortage Area. 

Telehealth is breaking down these barriers to access in new, unique ways that are especially beneficial to underserved communities, such as people of color, those who live in rural areas, and those who are working class or low-income. 

Teletherapy and the pandemic 

woman waving and smiling at laptop
More and more people have been opting for virtual appointments since the pandemic made many industries go online. Image courtesy of Understood.

Before the pandemic, telehealth services were a luxury. Prices were often much higher to get appointments online rather than in-person, and it wasn’t too common to see mental health professionals to even offer these services.

However, as the pandemic forced people to stay indoors, many practitioners had to completely change the way they did things. Virtual appointments via Zoom or other online communication platforms became far more common, and many institutions that already offered telehealth services expanded their programs to make their services more accessible. 

It’s important to note that teletherapy appointments have to maintain the same confidentiality as in-person ones, which is why only secure online platforms are used for appointments. Most professionals will also require patients to meet with them when they are alone to protect the privacy of the patient and ensure that the experience is as safe and comfortable as possible. 

Newer forms of teletherapy have included hybrid models, which allow mental health professionals and their patients to make decisions about care based on the different situations and needs that may arise. Some appointments can be scheduled to be in-person when necessary, while others can remain virtual in order to keep them accessible and convenient. Insurance companies such as Cigma have also begun prioritizing virtual visits and services in their coverage plans and resources that they offer. 

How teletherapy makes a difference

girl on man's shoulders with woman smiling at her
Teletherapy makes mental health care and treatment accessible to those who need it most. Image courtesy of CNBC.

The people who need help the most are often the ones who are left behind by mental health programs that are supposed to serve them. Teletherapy makes a difference in underserved communities by giving them access to mental health care that they may not otherwise be able to reach. 

For those who may not be able to afford to attend in-person appointments or are unable to make them, teletherapy is an accessible way to get the mental health treatment that they need. Making appointments with counselors available from your own bedroom is also a step in the right direction when it comes to reducing the stigma surrounding mental health and illness. 

Many people are afraid or unwilling to seek treatment for their mental health issues because they’re worried about what other people will think or say about them. Being able to access a clinician virtually helps to normalize the process of getting mental health care and encourages more people to seek treatment for whatever issues they may be working through.

While teletherapy is definitely a step in the right direction, it’s important to note that it doesn’t actually tackle the issues that prevent people from seeking help in the first place. In order for mental health care to truly become more accessible, widespread institutional changes have to be implemented, such as increased access to public transportation, expansion of insurance coverage, education programs about mental health, illness, and treatment, and digital literacy programs to help providers and patients alike navigate the new digital world of teletherapy. 

Teletherapy is a game changer for so many people who have been living with undiagnosed and/or untreated mental illnesses for years. It keeps therapy appointments individualized, safe, and secure, while also making them more accessible and convenient for people to access. 

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