The computer, the internet and the smartphone are now some of the top tools in the work of treating mental health conditions, suburban psychiatrists and psychologists say.
Within the past few weeks, as the coronavirus pandemic has grown, mental health practitioners have switched many appointments from in-person visits to telemedicine sessions to adhere to social distancing recommendations and stay-at-home orders.
That means patients with regular therapy sessions are now logging in or calling to see their providers through practices such as Clarity Clinic and Lighthouse Emotional Wellness Center in Arlington Heights or Ramos and Associates Behavioral Health Clinic in Mount Prospect, among others.
“We’re trying to minimize any risk for exposure, trying to provide the same level of care,” said Dr. Pavan Prasad, owner, founder and CEO of Clarity Clinic, which also has locations in Chicago.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the use of telehealth services to decrease in-person medical visits, which could decrease opportunities for the spread of the respiratory virus COVID-19.
On March 19, Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued an executive order requiring insurers to cover all in-network telehealth services deemed clinically appropriate and medically necessary, saying services can be provided through connections such as FaceTime, Facebook Messenger video chat, Google Hangouts video chat or Skype.
The order, Prasad said, cleared up the major hurdle that had prevented practices like his from putting more telehealth into place.
“The limiting factor has been insurance coverage — up until now,” he said.
So far, conducting treatment through video chats or phone calls has been working well, said Dr. Edgar Ramos, a bilingual psychologist at Ramos and Associates Behavioral Health Clinic in Mount Prospect and an assistant professor at Concordia University.
Technology usually has cooperated, Ramos said — although since ramping up telemedicine March 16, he has encountered the occasional slow connection or internet failure. Using the approach that helps many mental health patients — cognitive behavioral therapy — has worked through the phone or video conference, Ramos said, as long as providers offer reassurance and ask clarifying questions to understand any social cues or gestures that are lost in electronic translation.
Finding an appropriate time and place to conduct tele-therapy, however, can be more of a challenge. As a father, Ramos said, he’s had to explain to his children that he still needs to connect with patients. Patients on the other end of the chat often face the same dilemma.
“It even changes just the idea of that sense of privacy,” Ramos said.
If prescriptions are deemed necessary after an online visit, Prasad said, most electronic medical records systems allow providers to put in orders remotely so patients can get the medication they need.
“This would be more tragic if we were not adapted to that,” he said.
Group therapy is another popular option for mental health help that isn’t possible in the usual way under stay-at-home and social distancing requirements. So Lighthouse Emotional Wellness Center in Arlington Heights has launched five free online support groups. The groups, focusing on school-aged kids, teens, moms, people battling addictions and people with worries about COVID-19, are accessible from the counseling center’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/LighthouseEmotionalWellness/.
More people than usual may be “alone, scared, worried or depressed,” said Dr. Ray Kadkhodaian, president and co-founder of Lighthouse Emotional Wellness. But “supporting each other, commiserating and stress management,” even through an online connection, can help, he said.