Over the last month, all facets of school, work and even social events have become a series of Zoom calls. Days blend into the next. Friendships have become nothing more than images and text messages.
Life has changed in a way unlike ever before.
It’s no surprise that mental health is a topic of increased focus with the rise of COVID-19. Anxiety, distress and feelings of uncertainty have all been exacerbated by the pandemic and ongoing isolation.
Protests against stay-at-home orders are becoming increasingly common as well, with groups taking to the streets in large numbers. And with speculative reports that lifting quarantine soon may be a mistake and the theory that COVID-19 could become a part of life, the laundry list of upsetting news shows no signs of stopping.
The next crisis people are coming to face is safeguarding their mental health. However, the recent virtualization of society can also offer a resource for people in these trying times in the form of telehealth services.
The implementation of telehealth services for patients seeking mental health resources has become a growing focus for clinics and psychological services, especially in times of social distancing when providers are unable to meet their patients in person. At UCLA, the Counseling and Psychological Services center has transitioned to Zoom calls for students seeking therapy and counseling services.
CAPS has also suspended session limits, extending its telehealth services for students up until the start of the next academic year.
In the time of widespread quarantine and social unrest, telehealth is a necessary benefit and resource for people. And for CAPS specifically, the implementation of telehealth services could be more than just a temporary fix during this pandemic – it could also help it address its capacity issues well into the future. In order to continue to help treat mental illnesses and promote mental health, UCLA’s telehealth services must be provided throughout quarantine and well into the readjustment period as lifting stay-at-home orders comes into consideration. Otherwise, COVID-19 won’t be the only concern people will have to worry about.
Life has changed radically since the onset of stay-at-home orders, and it’s undeniable that issues stemming from the pandemic will have a long-term effect down the road.
Sneha Thirkannad, a third-year biology student at UCLA and the director of the housing reform platform at the Undergraduate Students Association Council Office of the President, said that the changes brought by the pandemic and the shift to online have been difficult in multiple ways.
“So not only am I disconnected from UCLA, but since my schedule is almost the exact opposite of my parents’ work schedules, I’m disconnected from my family too,” Thirkannad said.
It’s clear that along with the physical threat of the virus, the change of daily routine is also a source of disruption for many people – especially students and workers. And the impact of this continued isolation will continue to have an effect, especially on mental health.
Robert Bilder, a professor-in-residence of clinical psychology at UCLA, said that patients diagnosed with mental illnesses constitute an at-risk group.
“People suffering from mental health issues will only have their problems exacerbated by the ongoing stresses of the pandemic,” Bilder said. “PTSD and the fear of death are examples of symptoms and conditions that can get worse.”
Steps must be taken to protect and serve at-risk patients during the pandemic – including the potentially increased population of those with existing mental illnesses and those with an onset of new symptoms as a result of the change in lifestyle. And for college students the problem could be especially severe, considering that severe depression and anxiety have risen sharply over the past decade.
More so than before, it’s clear that telehealth services will need to account for this growing demand in health care. At-risk groups cannot be left under-resourced months down the line, as people are readjusting and unpacking the changes in their routines, when life is expected to return to a sense of normality.
For UCLA students, CAPS currently provides psychotherapy, psychiatry, group therapy and clinical coordination services for students, through remote platforms such as Zoom, and are available five days a week as a standard of care for students during the pandemic.
Nicole Green, the executive director of CAPS, said that the transition to online services has been effective and met with a positive reception.
“Students that were already receiving treatment prior to the pandemic are able to continue getting help and with more frequent treatment,” Green said. “And our crisis line is always available for students.”
There are also legitimate concerns about the effectiveness and security of telehealth resources, especially with doctor-patient confidentiality. However, growing research shows that telehealth opportunities have been therapeutic for patients and an attempt at care and attention must be made. As such, the resources that are going into expanding telehealth opportunities must also include the security measures necessary.
Telehealth programs such as those offered by CAPS are examples of strong efforts that must be taken seriously by schools, clinics and governments across the world in order to deal with the inevitable fallout of the stress and anxiety caused by this pandemic. And as time goes on, these services should become a part of the standard for treating mental illness.
The pandemic has changed many aspects of life into a landscape of uncertainties and existential crises, but there is still hope to be found that life can get better and that there is support to be found.
It may just be in the form of another Zoom invite.