Study Finds Pandemic-Era Telehealth Boosts Mental Health Care Access, But Racial Disparities Persist

Telehealth has played a significant role in improving accessibility to mental healthcare services during the pandemic, according to a study by the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). The research, led by mental health researcher Dr. Yusen Zhai and published in the Journal of Counseling and Development, suggested that the quality of mental healthcare services did not deteriorate despite the swift shift to online platforms.

In the wake of restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, stakeholders in the mental healthcare sector quickly turned to telehealth. Despite early skepticism surrounding the efficacy of this approach, the UAB study found that patients embraced this new method of receiving mental healthcare. Dr. Zhai, an assistant professor in the UAB School of Education’s counseling program and director of the UAB Community Counseling Clinic, stated, “We found that many people received the rapid shift to telehealth favorably.”

A novel aspect of this research was the use of the difference-in-difference approach, a quasi-experimental design. “We used the difference-in-difference analysis for the first time in counseling research,” Dr. Zhai explained. He further emphasized the significance of this analytical method as it aids in investigating causal relationships that are of interest and importance to public health and clinical practices.

Dr. Zhai and his team discovered that telehealth provided the essential means to prevent disruptions in patients’ existing counseling and mental health therapy sessions during the pandemic. This significantly increased overall mental healthcare accessibility. However, the study also highlighted the fact that racial and ethnic minorities were faced with considerable disparities in accessing these services.

Dr. Zhai cautioned, “The move to telehealth was positive overall, but it also showed us the increasing accessibility issues among racial and ethnic minority groups.” The study found that certain racial and ethnic minority groups, despite being more likely to experience mental health issues during the pandemic, were less likely to seek and use counseling services.

In light of these findings, it becomes evident that while telehealth offers numerous benefits and a significant step forward in mental healthcare accessibility, there is a pressing need for concerted efforts to tackle access hardships among minorities. The study reiterated that telehealth had the potential to bridge gaps in mental healthcare provision but underscored that this potential remained unrealized for many, especially racial and ethnic minority groups.

The study’s insights are essential, not only for comprehending the effects of telehealth on mental health care during the pandemic, but also for molding future public policies and practices. Dr. Zhai’s aspiration is that this research could trigger additional studies that focus on the ongoing racial disparities and inequalities concerning mental health outcomes and the utilization of available services. As he articulated in the press release, “This study will help inform the best practice for mental health care providers to offer optimal care and targeted support in various settings in the future. Additionally, my research will hopefully lead to more studies addressing the persistent racial disparities and inequalities around mental health outcomes and the utilization of services available.”

Despite the challenges, the shift to telehealth has emerged as a crucial tool in ensuring continued access to mental healthcare services in unprecedented times. The study’s findings can serve as a launchpad for developing policies and practices that further optimize the use of telehealth and ensure its benefits are extended to all sections of society, especially marginalized groups.