As Need For Mental Health Care Grows, Patients And Therapists Adjust To Virtual Visits | KERA News

As Need For Mental Health Care Grows, Patients And Therapists Adjust To Virtual Visits

Jun 5, 2020

Elizabeth Conlin is thankful she started seeing a therapist before the coronavirus pandemic reached North Texas. This past fall, she began a type of treatment called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR.

In-office EMDR sessions have helped Conlin address traumatic memories, but she's now switched to weekly telehealth visits, focusing on talk therapy. Her therapist has offered to try EMDR remotely. 

"But I feel like I wouldn't necessarily get the full benefit out of it, so I feel really grateful that we had accomplished all these major kind of breakthroughs before this all happened," Conlin said, "and just the fact that I can talk to her during this."

According to a recent national poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45% of adults say the pandemic is negatively affecting their mental health. For some, virtual therapy has been a lifeline, but the transition isn't seamless. It can be harder to accommodate specialized treatment. Patients like Conlin also miss the comfort and privacy of a therapist's office. She's been living with friends while remodeling her home.

"I will end up putting a sound machine in their kitchen and then going into the sun room so that I can be alone and I know I have privacy and no one can hear me," Conlin said.

Just a few weeks before COVID-19 transformed daily life in North Texas, Dallas resident Kinsey Wuensche started therapy for the first time. Wuensche was able to lay some ground work during that first month of therapy, talking through her goals, conflicts and key people in her life.

"It almost seems more daunting to try to find therapy now," Wuensche said.

Though Texas is reopening, Wuenshe is sticking to virtual sessions for the time being. She says establishing a relationship with her therapist in person has made video sessions less awkward, and she appreciates that her therapist can still pick up on nonverbal cues. 

But what about people who didn't seek therapy before the pandemic and want to start now? For those with coverage, health insurance companies can point to providers in network. Many online directories also allow patients filter therapists by background and specialty, and there are a growing number of virtual therapy companies built for remote visits. Still, regardless of the platform, it can take a few sessions to know if a therapist is a good fit.

"A first session is kind of like a weird awkward first date," said Kati Morton, a therapist based in Santa Monica, California.

Morton has gained a following of about 948,000 on her YouTube channel, where she answers questions, like what to talk about during therapy, and what happens during that first appointment?

Still, there are practical barriers to finding a therapist and scheduling an appointment. The nonprofit Mental Health America ranks Texas last in the nation when it comes to access to care, and with more Texans losing jobs during the pandemic, the number of uninsured people could skyrocket.

For those unsure if they can afford therapy, Morton recommends calling offices directly and talking through payment options. 

"Before you step in that office or open that Zoom call, you should always ask what the cost of the session is going to be and if they work on a sliding scale or if they take insurance," Morton said.

A "sliding scale" means the cost of treatment is flexible depending on a patient's financial situation.

While therapy can be a transformative tool, Morton wants new patients to know it's not a quick fix. There will be "aha moments," she says, but patients drive the process. 

"I'm sure any therapist or mental health professional out there will be nodding their head as I say, I will know things about patients, like, 'Oh, this is because their mom did this to them at this time, and that's where this is coming from. They just haven't realized it yet,'" Morton said, "and I try to thoughtfully and carefully guide my patients to that understanding, but again, they have to find it and realize it themselves." 

Got a tip? Email Syeda Hasan at Shasan@kera.org. You can follow Syeda on Twitter @SyedaReports.

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