While the physical health risks of COVID-19 increasingly dominate conversations around the globe, often lost in the conversation is the potential toll of the disease – and the steps taken to stop its spread – on people’s mental health. Anxiety, depression and feelings of loneliness can all increase during these uncertain times. Mental health services provided over the telephone or using videoconferencing (collectively known as telehealth) can help in meeting people’s psychological needs in this time of unprecedented healthcare demand.
In “The Role of Telehealth in Reducing the Mental Health Burden from COVID-19”, published in Telemedicine and e-Health on 23 March 2020, PCHSS investigator Dr Centaine Snoswell and colleagues explain the risks of social isolation to people’s psychological wellbeing. While the social distancing intervention will likely reduce the spread of the disease, reduced access to friends and family can cause loneliness, degrade those social support networks, and aggravate anxiety and depressive symptoms.
There is also a very high risk to healthcare workers:
Clinical and nonclinical staff are also at risk of psychological distress as they are expected to work longer hours with a high risk of exposure to the virus. This may also lead to stress, anxiety, burnout, depressive symptoms, and the need for sick or stress leave, which would have a negative impact on the capacity of the health system to provide services during the crisis.
These risks highlight the importance of increased attention and resource allocation to provide for the psychosocial needs of all people including healthcare workers. They argue that the Australian government’s move to provide additional services through the Medicare Benefits Schedule (which enables the delivery of a greater range of telehealth services) is a good start but will have limited impact because the new payments are restricted to special needs groups.
Given the scope of the present challenge to both short-term and long-term mental health, they support the expansion of telehealth programming. “Telemental health services are perfectly suited to this pandemic situation”, they conclude. These services provide people with “access to important services without increasing risk of infection.”