A laptop displaying the BetterHelp therapy website next to a square wall decor that reads
Telehealth options make accessing mental health services easy, safe and less intimidating than traditional office visits.

In April 1924, Radio News Magazine ran a futuristic cover featuring the image of several children crowded around what appeared to be a television-phonograph hybrid. This image, paired with the headline “The Radio Doctor– Maybe!” is just one example of past deliberations over telemedicine and how we could best use it to our advantage. 

Now, more than 90 years later, telemedicine has become a popular reality for many. Initially, telemedicine gained traction due to a variety of factors, one of the most prominent, being its convenience. However, now, in the midst of a global pandemic, this once futuristic means of healthcare has transformed into a necessity for many more people than 1924’s Radio News Magazine could’ve predicted.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 450 million people worldwide have suffered from some form of mental illness during their lives. Additionally, as of 2019, in the United States, only 41 percent of the people who had a mental disorder in the past year received professional healthcare or other services to treat or manage it.

Online therapy services are currently being used by more people than what some may think, according to Lucy Jang, a senior psychology major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,

Jang, who previously worked as a trained listener for a mental health and wellness app called HearMe, said that during her time as a listener, which lasted for approximately 3 months, she was able to connect with more than 100 people worldwide and speak with them about the mental health issues they were facing.

“HearMe is a free mental wellness app where users get matched to real-time listeners after requesting to chat,” Jang said. “I spoke with people of all ages in the U.S., the U.K., India and other parts of Asia about how they were feeling and the obstacles they were facing– it was both surprising and rewarding to reach so many people from all different walks of life.”

Apps such as HearMe are revolutionizing the accessibility of mental health services. This is especially true for individuals with disabilities and those who live in rural areas, which may limit individuals’ access or ability to meet with a therapist.

In addition to the increased accessibility of online mental health services, some people find them more appealing than in-person therapy for other reasons, as well.

“I’ve done in-person therapy before, but since COVID began, my therapist has started to do ZOOM sessions,” Sam Goodmanson, a junior Communications Sciences and Disorders major at Augustana College said. “I feel like there’s definitely a lower barrier of entry for online therapy– at an in-person meeting, you may see your therapist with their notebook, writing things down and it can all feel very clinical– but when things are online, it’s somewhat less intimidating.”

According to Goodmanson, there are a number of trade-offs when it comes to digital forms of therapy. Accessibility and convenience are two attributes that may make this option appealing for certain individuals, whereas the depersonalization of meeting through a screen, could be a turn-off to others.

“I can definitely see how meeting online could be difficult for some people,” Goodmanson said. “I am personally a very empathetic and emotional person, so when I’m in the same room as my therapist, I feel like it’s easier for me to pick up on her energy than it is over ZOOM, which make a big difference during our sessions.”

The challenges of making and maintaining solid connections with mental health practitioners via online therapy resources is not only one that is felt by clients. In fact, according to some professionals, it has been an ongoing concern.

According to social worker Joshua Kaplan-Lyman, who works for JourneyCare, a midwest palleative care provider whose Foundation Director, Karen Long, and Volunteer Services Director, Lisa Dye, both attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the transition to virtual and telephonic counseling has been a bit of a challenge.

“In terms of ease of use, there are some positives and negatives,” Kaplan-Lyman said. “You can connect with clients similarly to how you could in person— you can still get to know someone and provide empathic support, but you don’t get to assess things like body language or eye contact the same way you would in person.”

Although factors such as body language and eye contact may not seem like immediate necessities to everyone, they can be valuable to some individuals. With this in mind, the adaptations that mental health practitioners must make to their counseling techniques are often vital for cultivating positive experiences and outcomes for their clients. 

“Sometimes it’s easier for people to be vulnerable when you make in-person visits rather than doing it digitally or over the phone— with telephonic counseling especially, there can be a bit of a disconnect,” Kaplan-Lyman said. “It’s because of these sorts of challenges that I have had to find different ways to connect and empathize with people.”

Despite the challenges, Kaplan-Lyman noted that the future of mental health services may continue to revolutionize due to the emerging prevalence of digital therapy options.

“The ideal situation for the future is to not have everything all online or all in person; it should be a combination of both, which I feel is becoming increasingly more possible now that we have things like HIPAA compliant video platforms and telehealth insurance coverage” Kaplan-Lyman said. “Online and telephonic mental health services really are democratizing therapy. Receiving care is now much more accessible and the pool of professionals that clients can connect to has really expanded.”

Senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Journalism, AD/PR and German majors.