How the Mental Health Industry Meets Increased Demand Following the Pandemic

Since early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has threatened people’s physical and mental health. People around the world have felt increased stress from lockdowns and social distancing. Behavioral health providers have responded at every step, but the industry has been under strain for decades. How can providers give excellent care while keeping up with increased demand?  

Telehealth, integrated care, and expanded roles for healthcare providers can all be part of the solution. Here we’ll review some of the challenges the behavioral health field is facing and several solutions to consider. 

Telehealth Services

In early 2020, it became clear that the pandemic would limit in-person services for months. Telehealth became an essential method for delivering treatment. As the pandemic has waned in some areas, in-person sessions have returned. Still, telehealth can play a major role in improving access going forward.  

Telehealth services can expand in two ways. Local clinics and treatment centers can offer telehealth as an option when setting appointments, or, people may use one of many online therapy websites for counseling services.  

Despite the advantage of telehealth, it won’t be as effective for the following individuals: 

  • People without a stable internet connection 
  • People who can’t afford devices and cell service 

As telehealth becomes more mainstream, it may help clinicians reach many more people. However, other options will need to be developed to cover other gaps in care. 

Workplace Benefits With Expanded Mental Health Services and Coverage

Workplace benefits have included physical healthcare services for decades. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act of 2008 required mental health coverage options to be on par with medical coverage. Now, companies and businesses are more openly promoting mental health benefits. Businesses are attracting and retaining employees with better access to mental health care. 

Supporting Mental Health Startups

Entrepreneurs have largely overlooked the behavioral health industry. With the increased demand for behavioral healthcare in the last several years, startup investors have taken notice. Several service platforms and products have flourished in recent years. Mental health startups cover everything from meditation to teletherapy.   

As technology improves, telehealth services may become more common and easy to use. People expect to use technology in many aspects of their life, and mental health support is no exception.  

Treating Opioid Use Disorder With Effective Medications 

Opioid misuse is on the rise with over 2 million people dealing with this life-threatening condition in the United States. The need for opioid addiction treatment is steadily increasing, and medication offers an effective treatment option.  

These medications treat opioid use disorders (OUD) by addressing cravings and urges to use. They create little to no euphoria to feed the addiction cycle. With these medications, people can avoid overdose and years of potential health risks.  

Primary care clinics can now dispense some of these medications. Several barriers to access still exist, but increasing access to OUD medication treatments could help meet the growing demand for care. This treatment approach is evidence-based and effective. Better access to these medications may divert some people away from expensive and lengthy treatment programs. Individuals with less severe disorders could manage them with a local care provider. 

Integrated Health Care

Integrated healthcare clinics can provide more convenient and complete care for behavioral health needs. Some clinics may offer a flexible menu of care options, including shorter therapy sessions and brief medication checks. With an integrated care model, clinics can provide consumer-centered services with efficiency. 

Social stigma prevents many people who need behavioral health care from seeking help. Many people would prefer to keep their mental health concerns private. By placing medical and behavioral healthcare in the same location, an individual can go to the clinic without revealing the condition they’re treating.  

Expand Capabilities of Healthcare Providers

Psychiatrists are in high demand, but the supply has been dwindling for years. The retirement rate is currently outpacing the growth rate of new practitioners coming into the field. Until this ratio flips, the need for psychiatric care remains steady. Healthcare providers with behavioral health training could help fill this gap.

Nurses and physician’s assistants

Psychiatric-mental health (PMH) nurses and physicians assistants (PA) have the training needed to prescribe medication. People with mental health needs often see a medical healthcare provider first. In this case, seeing a medical provider first can cut down the time and visits needed to get an evaluation. 

Psychiatrists may still need to oversee complex cases. But PAs and PMHs can treat more people with straightforward behavioral health needs.  

Improve the Capacity of Current Behavioral Health Providers

The behavioral health industry is feeling the strain of high demand as the pandemic progresses. Here are some ways clinics and providers can improve capacity now and in the future.  

Streamline services in creative ways

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, mental health providers scrambled to adjust to safety restrictions. Clinicians that became more efficient and flexible could reach more people in their community.  

Even as the pandemic winds down, demand for mental health care is still high and will be for some time.  Any adjustments providers made to get through the pandemic can help streamline services. They can make the most of each session and reduce unneeded tasks. 

Address provider burnout

As the pandemic surged in early 2020, some clinics temporarily shut their doors as they figured out ways to help people. When providers were available again, many worked longer work hours to keep pace. Demand has not let up in over a year, applying continued pressure on the workforce.  

Providers facing burnout are at an increased risk of leaving the field prematurely, which may exacerbate the current shortage. Self-care must be openly discussed and encouraged by treatment team leaders to prevent burnout.  

Retain providers by improving career stability

Mental health professionals are often underpaid for the amount of training and education their jobs require. Job demands and emotional stress can take a toll as well. These challenges pose a threat to the current mental health workforce. Promoting better and more sustainable mental health career paths can help with provider retention.  

Behavioral Health – Keeping Up With Demand

Behavioral health providers are facing high demand for services with a strained workforce, but providers continue to respond creatively and use innovative ways of providing care. Behavioral healthcare has an opportunity to evolve and expand its reach in the coming years. 

Read more population health articles on the AIHI Blog