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Online counseling helps to satisfy surging demand for mental health support

07 Feb, 2021 Mental health support

Putting on a brave face.

Many people are reluctant to reveal they need mental health counseling, so they pretend they are OK. But if they are struggling with their mental health, pretending their problem doesn’t exist won’t help them attain peace of mind.

People can be against seeing a counselor such as a psychiatrist for various reasons, but they can be reassured the vast majority of patients are satisfied with their experience. BetterHelp gives more information about why refraining from seeking such support can cause a person more harm than good.

These days, people have the additional benefit of being able to access online mental health support as well as traditional in-person counseling, which makes appointments easier. Online counseling is a discreet alternative, and saves travel time. Due to the Covid pandemic, many of us are accustomed, anyhow, to communicating more via electronic channels than in-person meetings.

Distance-counseling provides several communication options. You can use different ways at different times as you wish, based on your needs, availability, and convenience. For instance, BetterHelp, which is the largest online counseling platform worldwide, offers counseling in four helpful ways:

  • Exchanging messages with your counselor
  • Chatting live with your counselor
  • Speaking over the phone with your counselor
  • Video conferencing with your counselor.

How acceptable is the online concept? US therapist Melissa Stringer says:

If anything, I find that both myself and the individuals I work with probably project more authentic versions of ourselves from the comfort of our own homes. The thing I place the most emphasis on—the integrity of the therapeutic relationship—is not diluted in any way because we are connecting through a screen. In fact, people often tell me that their online experience has been more satisfying than their previous in-person therapy.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Mental-health-visits-during-COVID-19-University-of-Michigan-graph.jpg

Above image published in article, “COVID-19: Why virtual mental health care could be here to stay,” by the World Economic Forum and Futurity on 19  January 2021.

Of course, no system is perfect. Online counseling can run into problems with technological glitches such as inconsistency in internet connection strength or problems with the video chat platform – and so this needs to be taken into account. A table at the end of this article lists the various pros and cons between online and in-person counseling.

Mental health has always been a sensitive topic

Mental health has traditionally been a taboo topic in the workplace. It’s still a sensitive topic. Many people still find it difficult to talk with others about mental health, including work colleagues and even their own families. Yet the number of people struggling with their mental health is astounding. Data published in a June 2020 report by the US Government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), showed that 41% of US adults said they had “at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, including symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder (31%)…”

A common reason why mental health can be a taboo subject is a fear of appearing weak and vulnerable in front of others. It is especially apparent among males – mostly because men often tend to feel pressured to live up to a stereotype of strong masculinity. They may think mental ill-health is therefore perceived as a weakness that will be used to discriminate against them in their personal lives and in their workplaces. 

What’s more: “working mothers are twice as likely to worry, compared with working fathers, that their performance is being judged negatively [at work] because of their caregiving responsibilities,” according to the New York Times of 4 February 2021. The same article reported that “69% of mothers said they’ve experienced adverse health effects due to worry and stress during the pandemic, compared to 51% of fathers.” On that subject, a Forbes article of 4 February 2021 gives some good advice for working mothers on “handling multiple stressors in a COVID-19 world.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) notes that lost productivity from mental health problems can manifest itself in two ways:

  • “absenteeism (people suffering from mental health problems take 5% more days off work,
  • presentee-ism (people working long hours but with little impact).”

The tide is turning…

More well-known public figures such as influencers, celebrities and even politicians are mentioning their mental health struggles without recriminations. These personalities include:

  • Prince Harry, England royal family
  • Lady Gaga, entertainer
  • Chrissie Teigen, model, TV personality
  • Jim Carrey, actor
  • Stephen King, author
  • JK Rowling, author.

“Mental health is the new normal…The Covid-19 pandemic has brought well-being to the forefront as employers are more aware than ever of the impact of mental health on employees and by association, the workplace,” asserted Brian Kropp, chief of research for the Gartner HR practice, in a Harvard Business Review article published online on 14 January 2021:

More mental health support has been becoming normal practice in the workplace in recent years. Even before the pandemic, 45% of wellbeing budget increases were being allocated to mental and emotional wellbeing programs, Dr Kropp went on to say in the HBR article.  The Covid-19 pandemic has brought wellbeing to the forefront as employers are more aware than ever of mental health’s impact on individual employees and by association, the wider workplace.

The COVID-19 pandemic has sharply increased mental health problems suffered by the working population:

Recent mental stress change in four industrialized countries
The Mental Stress Change Score compiled by Morneau Shepell, as shown in the graph below, is a measure of the level of reported mental stress compared to the previous month. A value of 50 conveys that there has been no net mental stress change from the previous month, while values above 50 indicate a net increase in mental stress and values below 50 indicate a net decrease in mental stress. You can see that mental stress has been increasing consistently in all these countries since the Covid impact was first felt:

Image: Morneau Shepell Mental Health Index Report – Regional Comparison, December 2020.

Can people with mental illness work productively in a regular job?

Oftentimes, yes, according to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans in 2019:

Employers and employees alike need to realize these conditions can be treated and symptoms can be managed. Someone whose untreated illness may lead to impairment is often unimpaired with effective treatment.

Good mental health benefits pay off – literally – for the wider community. A World Economic Forum article in August 2016 noted that “with every dollar invested in improving the care of people with mental health issues, there is a return of $4 for the economy.” And an April 2018 article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine stated that about 80% of individuals reporting depression “can be treated quickly and effectively, especially when symptoms are recognized early, and approximately 86% of employees treated for depression report improved work performance.”

What has effectively been a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to mental health in the workplace is becoming instead “do ask, do tell, let’s talk.” There is a coming revolution in how companies (and public-policy makers) think about, talk about, and cope with all forms of mental health issues, according to Professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Leanne Williams in a December 2020 McKinsey article.

But, a double setback for mental health availability

Ironically, a double setback has struck mental health service availability:

  1. COVID-19 is putting huge strain on mental health services provision.

Just as Western countries are recognizing the need to allocate greater resources for treatment of people suffering mental distress, the COVID-10 pandemic has suddenly put enormous extra pressure on service provision. Based on analysis by McKinsey, COVID-19 could create a potential 50% increase in the occurrence of behavioral health conditions. At the very time individuals affected by mental illness are likely to need more support than usual, mental health systems are at risk of losing capacity due to hospital overload and clinic closure to requirements for social distancing.

COVID-19 has not only interrupted the treatment of people already managing mental or substance use disorders, but also placed broader segments of the population at risk for developing further conditions such as depression, anxiety, alcohol use disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Also, people with pre-existing mental, neurological or substance use disorders are more vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 [COVID-19] infection  ̶  they may stand a higher risk of severe outcomes and even death (WHO statement in October 2020).  

  1. Shortage of service providers

At the same time, there is a long-standing, critical shortage of mental health care providers and resources in the United States and other countries, according to the CDC in 2018, and health experts elsewhere such as in Australia in 2020. Though the COVID-19 response to date has focused primarily on containing spread and preventing mortality, the pandemic has potential to create a secondary crisis of psychological distress and mental health system overload.

Online counseling services increase mental health support

An article published in the UK’s PsychReg website in October 2020 observes that:

…mental health is in the public consciousness more than ever before, and compared to even 10 years ago there have been huge improvements in opening up the topic… There are also significantly more services available to support people in need and to prevent further decline. The internet has also widened participation even further through virtual sessions of counselling and coaching – which is more important than ever before due to COVID-19.

This view is supported in a World Economic Forum article in May 2020:

As a result of COVID-19, online support has become a necessity. People are dealing with stress and anxiety related to their health, financial situations and isolation (with and without taking care of kids and managing to work at the same time) but are not able just to step outside of their home and seek support.

In this vacuum we see the rise of online services – from hotlines and online psychotherapy, to newly emerging peer support and facilitated groups platforms. We are currently experiencing acceleration of the development and adoption of remote emotional support but this is just the beginning. These services will be here to stay, long after we overcome the current pandemic.

A Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) article in 2019 noted that a rising number of employers are providing a variety of subsidized or fully covered digital mental health solutions. Just as telemedicine visits with doctors for conventional physical ailments are growing, so are various online applications to help deal with behavioral health issues.

Many companies now offer apps that help with meditation and sleep. Online counseling firms such as BetterHelp work with companies to ensure that employees have easy access to trained therapists.

Why online mental health therapy is being used so much

Online counseling is now a readily-used option to support people who are struggling with their mental health. One of the main reasons is that the COVID-19 crisis has led to many people being required to comply with social distancing regulations in their community, which also involves wearing a face mask in public as well as travel time to and from each appointment. As a result, in-person counseling has become more difficult to arrange, and so people have turned to online counseling as an alternative.

Besides, almost half of US employees (46%) have been working full-time at home during the pandemic, which makes it much easier to go online for personal reasons.

Image: Gartner Remote Work After COVID-19 Report, May 2020.

What’s more, Gartner estimates the proportion of US WFH employees will remain high after the pandemic – around 48% of workers.

Image: Gartner Remote Work After COVID-19 Report, May 2020.

WFH employees are more productive, and also have more flexibility for online mental health counseling

Interestingly, a recent Gartner survey found 64% of managers believe that office workers are higher performers than remote workers, and in turn they are likely to give in-office workers a higher raise than those who work from home. However, Gartner data collected from both 2019 (pre-pandemic) and 2020 (during the pandemic) shows the opposite: Full-time remote workers are 5% more likely to be high performers than those who work full-time from the office.

One common barrier to remote work is the fear employees will be less productive and potentially more distracted when working from home. But a May 2020 Gartner employee survey indicates this is not the case. Even during COVID-19, 83% of employees report they’re more productive working from home, and 78% agree they want to work remotely to avoid distractions. In addition, the 2020 Gartner Workforce Responsiveness Survey found employees working remotely are more likely than their in-office counterparts to report high discretionary effort and high enterprise contribution (see the table below).

Image: Gartner Remote Work After COVID-19 Report, May 2020.

Advantages of in-person counseling vs. online counseling

Advantages of in-person counseling compared with online counseling for mental health problems, as summarized in the table below:

Photo at top of page: By Sydney Sims @fairytailphotography on Unsplash.

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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