Prof. Dr. Kemal Arıkan
Psychiatrist

COVID-19 and the Role of Telehealth Services in Reducing the Burden of Mental Health

COVID-19 ve Zihinsel Sağlık Yükünün Azaltılmasında Telesağlık Hizmetlerinin Rolü

In addition to the physical symptoms of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, its psychological effects should also be known and recognized. Psychological symptoms regarding COVID-19 have already shown themselves in the form of anxiety-based purchasing behavior and paranoid behaviors in taking part in collective activities. Students and workers, who are prevented from having access to their educational institutions, workplaces and homes, as well as tourists, have started to show psychological symptoms due to reasons, such as decreasing autonomy, decreasing levels of income, and the absence of employment security, etc.

The fact that no medical treatment, such as vaccination or drugs, has been found for COVID-19 has paved the way for an isolation strategy around the globe, in order to protect the public health and prevent the spreading of the virus. The primary achievement of the isolation strategy has been acquired upon the slowdown of the spreading of the virus through social distancing. Nevertheless, individuals getting deprived of social support, such as their families and friends, has increased the risk of anxiety and depressive indications in addition to loneliness.

Healthcare personnel, who particularly have a risk of exposure to the virus and who work for long hours, have quite a high risk of showing symptoms of stress, anxiety, burnout, depression. Moreover, this situation may negatively affect the health system’s capacity to offer service during a crisis. The governments of China, Singapore and Australia emphasized the adverse psychological effects of COVID-19 and uttered their concerns about the effects of a long-term isolation, as well as the fear and panic in the society, causing more damage than COVID-19 itself.

Telehealth or, more specifically, telemental health services are practically viable methods in order to support the patients, patients’ relatives, and healthcare personnel during the pandemic. The role of the telehealth service is to provide mental health services through video conference, e-mail, telephone or smartphone applications by protecting the isolation of the individual. By offering mental health support, it is aimed to help patients sustain their psychological welfare and cope with acute – post-acute health symptoms in a better way. The treatment protocols aimed at COVID-19 patients must take into account both physiological and psychological needs of the patients and healthcare providers.

There are examples and evidences that support the effectiveness of the telemental health service. These examples are quite variable within the context of depression, anxiety and PTSD in particular.  Video conferences, online forums, smartphone applications, text messages and e-mails have been proven to be beneficial means of communication to provide mental health services.

China has provided various telemental health services with the outburst of COVID-19. These services include the psycho-training, consultation and inspection activities through online platforms (e.g. Hotlines, WeChat and Tencent QQ) supported by the government and academic institutions. Telemental health services have been prioritized predominantly for patients diagnosed with COVID-19 and their families, and police officers, security guards, and people who under a higher risk of being exposed to COVID-19.

It must be known that telehealth services are a valuable instrument to support both physical and psychological needs of all patients, regardless of the geographical location.  Telehealth services can be used to monitor the symptoms and to provide support for COVID-19 patients when necessary. Technological means of communication can be used more commonly to transfer cognitive skills and relaxation techniques for the purpose of sharing information about the symptoms of burnout, depression, anxiety and PTSD and to cope with the symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic. We must be aware of both short-term and long-term effects of COVID-19 on mental health. Telemental health services enable individuals to have a safe access to health services without increasing the risk of infection. Telemental health services are a perfect fit particularly for the pandemic conditions.

REFERENCES:
Zhou, X., Snoswell, C. L., Harding, L. E., Bambling, M., Edirippulige, S., Bai, X., & Smith, A. C. (2020). The Role of Telehealth in Reducing the Mental Health Burden from COVID-19. Telemedicine and e-Health. doi:10.1089/tmj.2020.0068

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