Transition to Virtual Mental Health Care Occurred Rapidly in Pandemic’s Early Weeks

In the wake of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, the vast majority of US mental health providers surveyed adjusted their practices rapidly, with 80% transitioning to telehealth services by late March or early April 2020. Researchers published their findings in JMIR Mental Health.

“The expediency and scope of this transition rate was striking compared to that of tele–mental health initiatives during previous US emergency situations, such as the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” wrote researchers from West Virginia University, Morgantown. “This may have resulted from the unique context of stay- at-home policies and the easing of logistical barriers during the pandemic, such as increased tele–mental health reimbursement.”

For the study, researchers surveyed 903 mental health practitioners to see how their practices have changed during the pandemic.

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Although 80% were not using telehealth in December 2019, just 4 months later that percentage had dropped to only 22%, according to the study. A mere 2% of surveyed mental health providers reported no pandemic-related practice adjustments.

Compared with social workers/master’s-level providers, psychologists/doctoral-level providers and neuropsychologists were less likely to transition to telehealth, found researchers, who pointed out that psychologists and neuropsychologists are more likely to conduct testing and evaluation.

The study also showed that private practice providers had less difficulty converting to telehealth, compared with providers in other settings, despite lower rates of access to information technology services. Nearly 60% of mental health providers were interested in continuing to offer virtual appointments in the future.

Although two-thirds of providers reported offering additional therapeutic services to address concerns related to COVID-19, the study found that only a small subset of mental health providers offered such services to health care providers—a finding researchers characterized as concerning.

“Given the low percentage of mental health providers offering additional therapeutic services specifically to medical providers, it will be important to make a concerted effort to identify and develop targeted mental health treatments for individuals and groups at increased risk of psychological distress related to COVID-19,” they wrote. “This may include frontline health care workers, individuals who became unemployed, those with personal experiences with the virus, and those in geographic hot spots.”

—Jolynn Tumolo


Reilly SE, Zane KL, McCuddy WT, et al. Mental health practitioners' immediate practical response during the COVID-19 pandemic: observational questionnaire study. JMIR Mental Health.2020;7(10):e21237.

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