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  • Adam Smith

COVID-19 And The Future Of Mental Health

While most business sectors are suffering right now, there are a handful of industries—virtual reality, medical devices, touch-free technology—in which the pandemic has catalyzed innovation and growth. Among them is virtual mental healthcare, which sees a steep increase in demand for all ages, but particularly in the teen and young adult demographic. With depression, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, and binge drinking on the rise among college students, and 70 percent of teens struggling with mental health issues, teletherapy can be a lifesaver.

Since founding Newport Academy in 2008, Jamison Monroe has been conscious of the enormous potential for delivering behavioral healthcare services via technology; the Newport Academy team was ahead of the curve in launching remote after-care for alumni of their residential and outpatient programs. Having that infrastructure in place when the pandemic hit earlier this year enabled them to shift all outpatient services to virtual formats almost immediately, with the majority of patients and families continuing their participation. In recent weeks, as state guidelines and feasibility permit, Jamison and his team instituted hybrid models—one or two days in person, with the remaining treatment hours delivered virtually. Throughout the pandemic, their residential treatment centers across the country have continued to operate at or near capacity, with rigorous safety guidelines in place. It is clear that mental healthcare is essential during a pandemic or not—teens, young adults, and families have continued to seek care.

Mental Healthcare for the Plugged-In Generation

Virtual mental healthcare won’t go away when the pandemic does. An evolving trend over the last several years will hopefully be a vital component in creating greater access to treatment, which is a significant concern; 2020 data shows that 60 percent of adults and youth with mental illness aren’t getting the care they need. Ironically, Generation Z, which has suffered most from the negative psychological effects of technology, is most likely to benefit from virtual mental healthcare, not only because they are so much more comfortable with this medium than their parents and grandparents, but also because the demand among this generation is so great. The pandemic’s mental health impact is exacerbating what was already a youth mental health crisis, illustrated by the drastic increase in suicide rates in this age group over the last two decades.

And it’s getting worse: Research released shows that young adults are experiencing high rates of depression (43 percent), anxiety (45 percent), and PTSD (32 percent), associated with loneliness, isolation, and low distress tolerance. No wonder: Along with current fears and instabilities, Gen Z is facing uncertainty about what the future holds for them, both in the near term as colleges scramble to reconfigure learning, and down the road in an economy devastated by COVID. Many recent college graduates who were preparing to launch have been forced to return to their families either working remotely or fighting to enter a workforce that has been thrown into chaos. Mental healthcare to support executive functioning and interpersonal relationships will be key for these emerging adults as they move forward.

When Virtual Care Isn’t

While there is no doubt that virtual mental healthcare is here to stay, and can make a tangible positive difference, that doesn’t or should completely replace residential and in-person treatment: third-party research on treatment outcomes at Newport Academy for teens and Newport Institute, their program for young adults, makes it clear that sustainable healing for young people with trauma-related mental health issues and co-occurring disorders typically requires more than virtual care can provide. There is no substitute for the immersion experience offered in the residential treatment environment. The development of new habits and healthy coping mechanisms are integrated into every aspect of daily life.

Furthermore, the therapeutic process is not always about talking. Many of the most powerful evidence-based modalities, including experiential therapy, somatic approaches, and group work, cannot be adequately replicated online. Therefore, occupying the same physical space while adhering to safety guidelines, such as wearing masks, can be a worthwhile tradeoff for the benefits of a shared IRL experience. At first glance, masks may seem like a significant barrier in a field where communication and interpretation of emotions are the essential requirements. However, for skilled mental health professionals, facial expressions are only parts of a nuanced picture that encompasses gestures, words, body language, and tone of voice. Moreover, for young adults burdened by isolation and loneliness, there is no match for the curative power of authentic, in-person connection with a supportive community.

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