Before the current COVID-19 pandemic overtook our lives, the United States was already in a precarious situation regarding mental health. More than half of American adults with a mental illness don’t get treatment and there is a severe mental health workforce shortage outside metropolitan areas. Today, after two months (give or take) of social isolation, working from home, scrambling to figure out online learning and create homeschooling schedules, adopting new and unfamiliar sanitization habits, and the general, constant, overwhelming fear for the health of ourselves, our families, and everyone we know, it seems clear that mental health is going to deteriorate even further.
A sure sign that even the people in power know things are bad? The federal government announced in April that they weren’t imposing penalties for HIPAA (the big scary federal law that regulates patient privacy on the internet) non-compliance, thereby facilitating an easier transition to telehealth-based healthcare.
Luckily, there is a bit of good news: this country has a lot of therapists to help us work through the PTSD, anxiety, and depression we’ll be experiencing soon, if not already. About half a million therapists are working in private practice nationwide. But in case you’re worried (like me) that 552,000 therapists doesn’t seem like enough to serve a country of 300 million (that would be 543 patients each), here’s the better news: we have thousands more licensed therapists who aren’t in private practice. Yet.
An estimated 1,000 licensed therapists in Philadelphia are not in private practice, instead working in other counseling and support positions such as school counselor, college professor, social worker, psychiatric hospital staff, or addiction treatment specialist. Even therapists still under supervision can begin running a private practice and seeing patients with their supervisor’s approval.
One solution to this impending problem is to create a gig economy for licensed therapists who aren’t already in private practice. Therapists who already work full time can see patients evenings and weekends, which is convenient for many patients who work during regular office hours. These therapists will be fulfilling an important function in our society as we begin to heal from this traumatic experience. They will also be fairly compensated for their time and expertise.
Now that telehealth is becoming normalized, patients are not limited to choosing a therapist in their immediate area. The only legal requirement is that your therapist is licensed in the state that you live in. A Pennsylvania-licensed therapist can provide therapy to any of its 12.8 million residents online, as opposed to the 1.6 million residents of Philadelphia. Many therapists hold multiple state licenses so they are available to more patients. Without physical restrictions, patients have more choices than ever before. Many therapists have specialized experience or training (such as EMDR) that patients are seeking. Expanding the pool of available therapists greatly improves their chances of finding the right match for them.
The other benefit of telehealth is that it removes the financial obstacle of renting a private office. Although working remotely can have negative effects on anyone’s mental health, the advantages for a therapist are huge: no commute, no rent, no utilities, less hassle. How many therapists and other solo business owners will be giving up their leases in the coming months? Why shouldn’t they?
We have the need, the therapists, and the technology to make this new gig economy a reality. Many people who decide to try therapy don’t know where to begin—what their options are or who to trust. Making more therapists available to more people in more ways is the first step to reducing the existing barriers to access.
May is Mental Health Month. Let us celebrate by taking the necessary steps to recover from this global trauma.