COVID-19 has changed the way we live our lives. From working remotely to being separated from friends and family, if you’re feeling hopeless, listless, frustrated, or anxious, you aren’t alone. The global pandemic has created a secondary one: a mental health pandemic. But, mental health care is still unaffordable for many, even with the rise of group therapy or text/phone therapy. Luckily, there’s a growing crop of more affordable online counseling apps sitting right on your iPhone.
First, a bit of background. To put this mental health crisis in perspective, in past massive outbreaks of infectious diseases (none of which have been as severe as COVID-19) mental health issues have persisted due to the outbreaks for at least four years after the event. Researchers have even discovered that the psychological impacts of “bio-disasters” like pandemics and epidemics can generate negative psychological effects equivalent to that of other traumatic events such as earthquakes and terrorist attacks.
Many experts agree that while the Coronavirus itself may provide a possibility for an increase in mental health issues, quarantine and lockdown measures across the world are also a cause for increasing mental instability in individuals. While certainly quarantines and lockdowns are necessary to reduce the amount of people who contract COVID-19, the increase in time spent alone, the inability to work, and the surge in free time seem to usher in mental health problems for many people.
In fact, a recent psychological study that investigated a sample of individuals who had been quarantined found that those participants in quarantine were more likely to feel numerous negative emotional reactions when compared to their peers not in quarantine. These emotional reactions included “stress, depression, irritability, insomnia, fear, confusion, anger, frustration, boredom, and stigma associated with quarantine”. Additionally, the same researchers discovered that those who have previously struggled with these mental health issues are more likely to relapse during times such as these.
A study that investigated various mental health conditions in America in 2020 discovered that the average mental health of those in the sample (5,470 participants) was substantially worse in 2020 when compared to the average mental health during the same time period the year before (2019). Specifically, substance use and suicidal ideation has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than double the amount of people in 2020 reporting suicidal thoughts when compared to 2019 numbers. The increase in substance abuse could be attributed to more free time and less responsibilities during quarantine and lockdown; however, the increase is still significant enough to warrant discussion.
One of the most common forms of mental health treatment is of course in-person therapy, whether that be one on one with a therapist or group therapy with a number of peers. While some sort of therapy would certainly aid many individuals with their battle with mental health issues, therapy can be inaccessible at the best of times. Most personal therapists cost $200-$300/hour, even over the phone. And, even phone or text therapy subscriptions can cost $200-$300 per month!
Usually, going to a therapist, you might choose a particular aspect of your life to talk about, such as conflicts with family while working from home. Or, you might choose a specific feeling, such as feeling frustrated with poor remote communication, or anxious about whether you’ll get sick, uncertain about fears such as layoffs, or lonely because you experienced a breakup and can’t date during the pandemic. The therapist would likely ask you some introspective questions and share some information from their studies. They may also send you home with some “homework,” or worksheets that help you frame your thoughts.
Apps such as LIFE Intelligence model that experience, but in an entirely private, self-guided and affordable way. Similarly priced to Headspace or Calm, the app covers hundreds of possible life topics, from breakups, to big decisions, to giving 1x1 feedback at work. In addition, it helps you solve dozens of specific moods, much in the way a real therapist would. And, instead of taking home a paper worksheet, exercises are digitized in-app. That means you can get 100% the therapy-level breadth, depth, and specificity, at <1% the cost. It's much more scientific than even the best self care apps available.
Research shows that online therapy for depression is basically as effective as in-person therapy in helping individuals deal with mental health issues. In fact, the internet has been used for all types of therapy for more than a decade. At first many mental health professionals criticized and opposed treating mental health in an online environment for a variety of reasons. For one, it was thought that it was necessary for therapists to get non-verbal cues from their clients in order to fully understand what their client was going through. Furthermore, many individuals were worried about how switching mental health treatment to an online environment may compromise the secrecy and confidentiality of patients and that it may lead to other ethical problems.
Despite all these grievances against online mental healthcare, it persisted and soon became more normalized. In a study that did a meta-analysis of all empirical articles on the effectiveness of internet-based mental health treatment, it was found that the effect size of apps were practically equal to in-person treatment (approximately 0.53). This means that online therapy is as effective as in-person therapy. Of course, there are caveats to this finding such as the type of treatment and the exact mental health condition of the patient; however, this still provides evidence that online mental healthcare can be effective and should certainly be utilized during the COVID-19 pandemic if available.
It is undeniable that discussions with a mental health professional would certainly be most helpful for those who need dedicated, severe help. However, for the vast majority of us, something is better than nothing. And, recent research highlights there are viable, digital ways to improve overall mental health without specific treatment from mental health professionals. These exist to help any individual, of any demographic, price point, or level of intra/extraversion, obtain the mental health care they deserve.