The COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Ripple Effect: Its Strain on Mental Health and the Importance of Telehealth

Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP

As the national COVID-19 Public Health Emergency persists, uncertainty regarding our families’ and our own health and safety continues to grow. With several businesses forced to close their doors and layoff employees due to the COVID-19 outbreak, over half a million Pennsylvanians have filed for unemployment in the last week—adding uncertainty regarding financial stability to our worries.

While healthcare professionals and public officials work relentlessly to protect our communities from the COVID-19 virus, we cannot ignore the impact this uncertainty can have on the mental health of many people, especially those individuals struggling with depression and anxiety.

For example, practices including “social distancing” and “stay-at-home” that are encouraged—even mandated in certain places—to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are antithetical to the measures taken to combat depression and anxiety. Typically, counselors recommend social interactions and avoiding self-isolation to individuals struggling with depression. But for now, self-isolation and avoidance of social gatherings are the means required to protect ourselves and our communities from the COVID-19 virus. Individuals with contamination-related Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) whose counselors often tell them to avoid washing their hands at frequent intervals and reiterate that it is safe to leave the house are now bombarded with serious warnings from the government, employers, and family members to “wash your hands” and “stay in your home.”

Most importantly, the “stay-at-home” orders render in-person behavioral health services such as group therapy and peer support groups like Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous impractical—if not, impossible and detrimental to slowing the spread of COVID-19.  

Fortunately, both the Federal Government and the Commonwealth recognize the importance of continuing behavioral health services and have adopted temporary measures to expand the availability of telehealth services during the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency. For example, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services’ Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services adopted several exigent and non-traditional measures:

  • Telehealth services can be provided via commonly available telephonic video available on smart phones and other electronic devices. Where such video technology is unavailable, telephone-only services are permitted;
  • The requirement for the presence of staff trained to provide in-person clinical intervention during the provision of telehealth services is temporarily suspended;
  • The requirement for staff trained in the use of telehealth equipment and protocols is also temporarily suspended;
  • Telehealth services are available for all individuals providing necessary behavioral health services within their scope of practice; and
  • Limits on the amounts of services that can be provided through telehealth are temporarily suspended.

These changes expand telehealth for the provision of behavioral health services for Pennsylvanians, which allows individuals to receive medically necessary services while simultaneously mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

As the nation continues to navigate these uncertain times, individuals should take advantage of this expansion of telehealth behavioral services—even individuals who maybe did not necessarily utilize such services prior to the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency.

For additional information on how to manage the stress and anxiety posed by the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, please visit the Centers of Disease Control and Prevent available here

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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