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Mental Health Telehealth Cases Are Rising due to COVID-19, but What’s Really Driving the Surge?


Much of the news about COVID-19 focuses on the physical symptoms patients experience when battling the virus. But the pandemic has also contributed to a rise in mental health issues as individuals struggle to cope with the combined stresses of isolation, social distancing, financial strains and health worries.

At Carenet Health, we analyzed our nurse advise line and Virtual Clinic data over a 30-day period (March 21- April 21, 2020) during the COVID-19 crisis and found an alarming increase of 166% in the numbers of behavioral health triage cases handled by our healthcare professionals.

What are the main issues driving the dramatic increase in the need for virtual behavioral health support? To explore the topic, we asked our 200+ telehealth registered nurses (RNs) what patients are telling them about their pandemic-related anxiety, depression or other mental health concerns. Our clinical teams support patients via telehealth services around the nation. Here’s what we learned.

Patients are worried they have COVID-19.

“Symptomatic patients are seeking answers. They have symptoms but are not sure they ‘have the virus.’ They’re told they can’t go to work until they get a doctor’s note or confirmation they don’t have COVID-19. However, they can’t be tested. They’re afraid to miss work, or they’ve already lost their jobs. Individuals with set and limited incomes are struggling to meet basic needs.”

“Many want testing, so they know if they are spreading COVID-19 to others. But testing is not available or not an option if they don’t meet all criteria in their state.”

“Based on the information about symptoms they are getting from the news and Google searches, many are sure they have coronavirus. They are panicked and don’t know what to do.”

Many are experiencing a fear of seeking in-person care.

“Many of our callers are refusing to go to an urgent care center or the emergency department for reasons unrelated to COVID-19, out of fear that they will contract the virus. Anxiety and despair are truly apparent in so many of our patients. It crosses all spectrums of age, gender, cultural backgrounds and socioeconomic classes.”

“Patients with non-COVID-19 issues are terrified to go to the emergency room or urgent care. One caller broke down in tears when I told him to go to the ER. Many patients are looking for home care remedies for things that can’t be treated at home.”

Patients lack access to their relied-upon care options.

“Some callers are really in a panic when they can’t reach their doctor or get the medications refilled that they have been on for many years. Some are psychiatric patients or on narcotic meds, and they know what will happen if they stop their meds ‘cold turkey.’”

“Patients are being forced to let small issues go, like a rash, because the only options at this time are urgent care or the ER. It really gets people worried and fearful when they realize they don’t have access to their regular healthcare.”

“I have definitely noticed an increase in anxiety and depression calls. A lot of people are not able to reach their mental health counselors and primary care physicians.”

“Their anxiety is up because they may have COVID-19 symptom and they want reassurance from their trusted doctor’s office, which may be overburdened right now.”

Patients are feeling isolated.

“Patients, especially elderly individuals, feel lonely and afraid that no one will be able to help them. Individuals living in retirement and group communities who used to be able to have social activities to keep them engaged are now limited to their own rooms. They’re scared and feeling lost. They can’t even have their meals together because of social distancing.”

“Parents who used to count on the support of others to take care of their families are stressed out without help and childcare options.”

“Fear of the unknown and isolation are the two most significant factors I’ve seen. They run the gamut in terms of age, too. For example, an 18-year-old caller said he had heart palpitations caused by fear. A 76-year-old caller who lives alone was afraid because he is isolated, low on food and didn’t feel he could get the help he needed.”

“Patients are worried about employment and not having a paycheck and don’t know where to turn. These concerns have to be dealt with, so they don’t escalate to mental health crisis situations. Nurses are having to work extra hard to find available resources for callers like a food pantry or help them identify coping strategies or support systems.”

For additional insights on mental health and telehealth utilization during the pandemic, please download our interactive trend brief.

For more analysis of COVID-19 and the role of telehealth services, and best practices for optimized virtual care and engagement, visit our COVID-19 Resource Center.