Globally, mental illness has become one of the leading causes of illness and disability. It’s estimated that 450 million people suffer from at least one mental disorder, and one person commits suicide every 40 seconds. Unfortunately, mental illness rates are still on the rise and the end doesn’t seem to be in sight. That being said, with the advancement of health IT and more specifically telehealth, patients have more access to care and healthcare professionals can deliver effective care to the many individuals who need it urgently.
So, what is telehealth? Simply put, it’s the practice of delivering health-related services via telecommunications and virtual technology. The most common types of delivery of care in telehealth are secure video conferencing and instant messaging. Telehealth—often used interchangeably with telemedicine and virtual care—makes it easier for patients to connect with providers, and receive appropriate and timely care. With a growing number of people using the Internet and digital devices, it’s inevitable for certain healthcare services to be offered virtually. Virtual care needs to become standard in every practitioners toolkit, especially with the rise of mental illness rates.
Mental illness, which includes a long list of different disorders (i.e. depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, etc.), is almost considered to be a pandemic. It not only represents a heavy burden for individuals but also businesses and economies:
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year-olds globally, with mental illness being the most important risk factor;
- Nearly 50% of total workplace lost productivity time is due to depression;
- Mental illnesses are on the rise in every country and will cost the global economy USD$16 trillion by 2030.
Access to care is one of the main barriers to receiving care for mental illness. This can be due to many reasons, including the stigma attached to mental health, denial of symptoms, and/or a lack of resources. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that nearly 66% of people with a known disorder never seek care from a healthcare professional. Even worse, people with severe diagnoses who do seek care aren’t always welcomed. In fact, the “majority of people treated in an Ontario emergency room after a suicide attempt are not seen by a psychiatrist within six months” reported The Globe And Mail.
Mental health is one of the best use cases for virtual care by providing:
- Accessibility in times of limited transportation and/or geographic concerns;
- A safe space for people who don’t want to seek care in public;
- An inexpensive but effective alternative to the traditional delivery of care.
A crucial consideration for telemental health is how and when to provide services. Individual mental health providers can implement virtual care platforms into their practice, and offer this alternative to patients who need it most. Those who use a virtual care platform are able to treat more patients and can support them in between visits. “Technology really helps us get more bang for our buck and extend our service reach,” says Eve-Lynn Nelson, assistant director of research at the University of Kansas Center for Telemedicine and Telehealth. However, an important best practice for telehealth is to identify patients who are best suited for this type of delivery of care.
Employee wellness and disability management companies also play an important role in addressing this pandemic. As per the WHO, work environments “that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains.” Employers can reduce productivity loss from both absenteeism and presenteeism by including telehealth in their employee assistance programs. Here’s some more information on how virtual care can help employee wellness programs.
Raising awareness for mental health is a paramount step to reducing its stigma and increasing the likelihood for people to seek care. But if we don’t have the capability to provide the care, mental illness and suicide rates will only continue to rise. Utilizing, and more importantly normalizing, virtual care technology can improve health outcomes in patients and reduce the economic burden to companies and economies. So what are we waiting for?