Mental health has been having a moment. During the pandemic, all of us, whether we are patients or counselors, have at times felt overwhelmed. We’ve faced new stressors, but we’ve made ourselves available to each other in new ways and faced challenges with creativity and resilience. At The Health Center in Plainfield, where I serve as licensed clinical social worker, we have seen the number of visits for mental health counseling increase by nearly 20% and inquiries for mental health counseling has doubled. Local mental agencies everywhere are reporting an increase in visits and waitlists. Engagement in counseling services appears to be at an all-time high. Patients are struggling but they are available and showing up. The pandemic, in many cases, has increased social isolation, but in the area of mental health, especially telehealth, it has opened doors.
During the past year, I’ve often found myself asking patients, friends, and family, to imagine they have two buckets: one filled with things that they are looking forward to saying to goodbye to after the pandemic, and the second filled with new things learned, that they hope to keep. While we are all anxious to say goodbye to social distancing, many of us are excited to maintain new ways of connecting. Boomers have turned into confident Zoomers, many of us have found new ways to participate in civic or community life online, grocery shop, connect with friends from afar and many people have discovered that, because it can be delivered online, they now have access to mental health services. Patients who have small children, who don’t have a flexible work schedule, who are juggling various commitments or for whom transportation has been a barrier, now find that they can “show up.” This has helped them weather the storm and provided them with consistent support and even hope.
Telehealth isn’t for everyone, to be honest, one of the things I have missed most during the past year is the mindfulness that comes from sitting face to face with someone in a counseling session. Broadband is a challenge for many in Vermont, particularly for our most vulnerable neighbors. But just as the pandemic has reinforced that we need a variety of housing, educational or medical treatment options we also know we will continue to need a variety of mental health options—including telehealth, to ensure that we emerge from the pandemic healthier, more connected, and with more equitable options than we had before.
In talking to patients, families and friends we discover that there are so many things in the post-pandemic bucket that we strive to keep. Increased commitment to addressing racial injustices, performing acts of kindness for our neighbors, or centering ourselves in the natural world. Now that we see the light at the end of the tunnel, we should make sure that light guides to a better place where these positive changes can be made permanent. For mental health, this means continuing to be conscious of self-care, prioritizing one’s needs, asking for help and making permanent the flexibility that patients have benefited from. Patients should continue with Zoom as it allows for their schedules, mental health clinicians should improve upon their tele-threapy skills of creativity and engagement, and insurances should continue to reimburse for these visits. Now that we know it can be done, let’s do it.
Mental health is having a moment. So how do we turn this moment into momentum? We know life is filled with moments, both the good and the not so good, and when strung together, they can tell us a story of who we are, who we hope to be, and how we’ve lived our lives. Let’s make this a positive moment for mental health and let that be a part of the story.
Angela Shea lives in Montpelier and is a licensed clinical social worker and licensed drug alcohol counselor at The Health Center in Plainfield. Also, she serves on the board at the People’s Health and Wellness Clinic.