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Telehealth’s impact on those seeking mental health therapy a year into pandemic

Published: May. 1, 2021 at 3:25 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - This past year has been a rollercoaster for all of us. But for those living with a mental illness, and those who’ve had to experience mental health issues for the first time, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a pandemic within itself. Luckily, a unique opportunity came out of unique challenges.

Mental health issues and the pandemic have unfortunately gone hand-in-hand over the past year. The added stress created a bigger need for those seeking mental health therapy and treatment. But not everyone who needed it, got it, partly because of the fear of going out in public during the pandemic.

“The case load definitely went down quite a bit in the beginning,” said Dr. Brian Weiland, psychologist at Behavioral Health Clinic in Wausau.

But as the weeks and months went along, many people’s mental health got worse.

“Problems start coming up and you’re not getting them addressed in the way you were,” Dr. Weiland added.

Adjusting to life in a pandemic also brought mental issues to those who never had them before.

“It’s just an unprecedented situation,” Dr. Weiland said.

“Everything seemed magnified to me,” said Will Downs. “It made it hard on my marriage and with my kids.”

Prior to the pandemic, Downs didn’t see a therapist. But that changed once it hit.

“I felt stuck. I found myself getting mad a lot for reasons unknown. I just didn’t know whether I was coming or going half the time,” said Downs. “I was recognizing a lot of things, and my wife and I would sit down and talk and she’s like, well maybe it’s something that we need to do now.”

As many mental health clinics closed their doors to most in-person visits, telehealth opened doors for people to still get that help.

“The schedule I have is a little hectic, so it helps make visits with her [therapist] possible,” Will explained.

Emily Ramthun lives with anxiety and depression. She has also felt the added stress of unknowns during the pandemic. And while she has been seeing a therapist for about five years, having telehealth available to her was also a saving grace.

“Having an auto-immune condition I have to take precautions super vigilantly, so I was one of the first people to raise my hand and say, hey can we do this virtually, so I don’t put myself at risk and others at risk,” she said.

Telehealth has been an option offered at Behavioral Health Clinic for years now, but for other clinics adjusting for the first time, Dr. Weiland said it couldn’t been difficult for a lot of them to keep up with.

Ramthun said that was the case at the clinic where she is a patient.

“I believe it was two months ago, they said that they had a wait list of 40 patients, because there are not enough mental health practitioners and especially the ones that are willing to do them virtually,” Ramthun explained.

Not only did some clinicians find themselves with a backlog of appointments, but psychiatrists as well. Psychiatrists are licensed to prescribe medication.

“Patients who need medication and things like that, I just can’t imagine what that looked like, especially since psychiatrists are so scarce in our area,” Dr. Weiland said.

According to Andrew Kraus, a spokesperson for Aspirus Wausau Hospital, the waiting period for a patient to see a psychiatrist within Aspirus is 8-12 weeks. He said the referrals are double to what they were a year ago.

“We’re seeing an increasingly high number of referrals on a daily basis,” Krauss said. “We believe this is the result of COVID and the impact it has had patients’ lives over the last year.”

“My heart goes out to those who are waiting to seek mental health care, because it is so important, just as important as your physical health,” said Ramthun.

But while it’s taken a while to get used to the new normal of therapy, things are starting to look up. Dr. Weiland said a lot more clinicians are seeing patients in person.

But whether you’re face to face or virtual, Downs said getting that help is priceless, calling it one of the best things he’s done. Now there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and a new way to see the world around him.

“You know, I can’t change the fact that COVID’s here. I can’t change the fact that things are closed and things aren’t the way they used to be. The only thing I can change is how I perceive things,” he said. “Being able to recognize that as compared to letting my anxiety take over my depression take over is a big stepping stone toward making things better.”

In terms of cost, Dr. Weiland said insurance companies seem to have similar rates for in-person and virtual care. But for some therapists who are online-only, they will likely be cheaper, because there’s less overhead costs.

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