Virtual mental health care may increase access and reduce stigma

Qualities often seen as upsides to life in small, rural communities may end up being challenges for someone seeking help with a mental health issue.

“Being outside of a city can have a lot of benefits, but it can also have you hours from medical care,” said Dr. Rhonda Randall, chief medical officer at UnitedHealthcare. “In some communities, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and other behavioral health professionals can be a day’s drive away.”

An estimated 1 in 3 Americans live in an area with a shortage of mental health professionals. Of those areas, two-thirds are in rural or partly rural regions of the country. 

So while the prevalence of mental illness in rural and urban residents is similar, available services can be harder to find. This disparity in access has taken on renewed significance as remote-work opportunities are giving more people the option to live and work wherever they choose.

“Demand for behavioral health support has increased and so has the need for alternative ways to access it,” Dr. Randall said. “This can be especially true for employees who work outside of urban centers.”

Dr. Randall says one solution may be the network of online services that expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to grow today, including:

  • Self-help apps
  • Virtual coaching
  • Virtual therapy
  • Substance use cessation tools

“These virtual services and technology-enabled solutions have all become more widely available over the past couple of years — and that’s a good thing,” Dr. Randall said. “Telehealth has clear benefits: It’s convenient, affordable and allows users to get care where and when they need it.”

Dr. Randall says these virtual services may continue to help people:

  • Access quality care
  • Stay consistent with treatment
  • Afford services
  • Avoid stigma-related issues

“People in rural communities look out for each other, which can be a comfort, except perhaps when you are trying to deal with a personal issue like your mental health,” Dr. Randall said. “In the past, it may have been difficult to seek help if mental health was shrouded in stigma.”

Dr. Randall says the privacy of virtual services accessed at home may make more people feel comfortable reaching out for help, adding, “If you don’t have to leave home, you don’t have to explain where you were when you get back.”

A final thought: While access to care is vital, it can’t be effective if employees don’t know about it.

For instance, many companies offer an employee assistance program (EAP) that includes no-cost help for managing stress, anxiety, depression and substance use. However, EAP services often go unused, in part, because employees aren’t aware of them.

“Don’t just create the opportunity for employees to address mental health, make sure they know the help is available — and who to call if they need help navigating the complexity,” Dr. Randall said.