Opinion: Better access to mental health care may be the silver lining of COVID-19

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Nicole Letourneau is a professor and researcher in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Calgary.

Recently, public health restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19 have been gradually relaxed in communities across Canada. While time will tell if this spells the end of pandemic concerns in general, it is good news for many Canadians, especially those impacted by the mental health issues that have exploded during the pandemic.

According to Statistics Canada, one in four Canadians aged 18 and older tested positive for symptoms of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder during the first half of the pandemic, up from one in five before the pandemic . A Canadian study found that between 67 and 70% of young people under the age of 18 experienced deteriorations in their mental health, particularly those affected by pandemic-induced social isolation.

To make matters worse, mental health care has been difficult to find and provide during the pandemic, with restrictions severely limiting in-person clinic appointments. Thus, hospitals have been challenged to manage the increase in children and adults presenting to emergency departments, not with symptoms of COVID-19, but in mental health crises.

Although an alternative to in-person care – telehealth – has been available for decades across Canada, with doctors, nurses, psychologists and counselors often providing care over the phone, it was in limited use pre-pandemic. In-person care has long been the modality of choice for patients and health care providers. However, COVID-19 has introduced new problems and opportunities to address them.

To meet the growing demand for mental health care, the World Health Organization 2021 The Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan recommended increased use of digital technologies, including electronic and mobile tools. They also recommended increasing the capacity of healthcare professionals to deliver digital health solutions remotely. At the start of the pandemic, the federal government provided funds develop, expand and launch digital mental health care tools to support Canadians.

Likewise, the pandemic has demanded that Canadians acquire a new convenience, born out of necessity, to connect with co-workers, family and friends with their smart phones, computer webcams and video conferencing technologies. Additionally, to meet the growing need for mental health care, health care providers had to be nimble and inventive to deliver the necessary care remotely. As a result, Canadian health care rapidly pivoted to offer new digital modalities of mental health care delivery and the patients have fully benefited from it.

For many health care providers, it was an experiment, but a Systematic review Pre-COVID-19 evidence has shown that mental health care delivered digitally, via video call, is as effective as in-person care. For healthcare providers and newly initiated patients, the response has also been positive during the pandemic.

In my team’s research into an intervention for new mothers affected by depression, we also pivoted tests in-person care in the care of digital video. These parents – usually tech-savvy young mothers – often preferred to receive the program from the comfort and convenience of their homes.

Digital video care has many advantages. It can be delivered anywhere people have Internet access, providing greater access to rural and remote customers, such as residents of Canada’s North. This convenience extends to both patients and providers, as the need to travel by motor vehicle or public transportation to clinics is eliminated. This not only saves time, but also reduces associated expenses.

The modality may also be less stigmatizing, as patients do not need to attend a mental health clinic. For patients with symptoms that make them less able to leave home, such as fatigue and depression, digital video care helps ensure they can still get to appointments.

Not only have all the benefits of this modality become clear during the pandemic, but changes to some inter-provincial regulations have even meant that care can be provided to a patient in one province by a healthcare provider in another. . Doctors is making major progress in this work and a 2021 Health Canada report recommends that further health care providerslike registered nurses, are following suit.

To continue on this positive path, equitable access to high-speed Internet services across Canada and to digital technologies (such as smartphones and computers with webcams) must be a public health priority. We have an opportunity to ensure that all Canadians, regardless of their postal code, have access to quality mental health care.

Although public health restrictions may end, the fallout from the pandemic could still negatively impact the mental health of Canadians for the foreseeable future. We must not revert to the traditional overreliance on in-person clinic visits for mental health care. Flexibility in care delivery must become a mainstay, with digital video modalities remaining in the toolkit of healthcare professionals and patients.

Increased patient access to preferred, cost-effective and effective digital video care for mental health could be the silver lining in the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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