Behavioral health providers are some of the unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic. They stepped up to provide treatment for the “silent pandemic” of mental health challenges, largely via telehealth.
Behavioral health providers creatively pivoted to continue supporting people whose treatment could have been disrupted as social distancing became the norm. They also supported people who were new to treatment because of stress brought on by the pandemic.
Massachusetts-based Groups Recover Together demonstrates how behavioral health providers have used innovation and creativity to not only maintain but expand access to treatment for substance use disorder since COVID-19 began.
The organization, which combines medication assisted therapy and group therapy, is guided by the premise that substance use disorder is fundamentally a disease of isolation. Yet they found a way to continue service during quarantine.
Stay-at-home orders during the pandemic could trigger some of the feelings that underlie substance use disorder—such as anxiety, panic, and depression. It also triggered fears in Groups Recover Together staff: “Your instant thought is, ‘oh my goodness, what are my people going to do? And how will they avoid relapse?’” said Anne Hassey, a counselor for Groups Recover Together.
Before COVID-19, about 8% of the organization’s appointments were conducted via telehealth, to help those who lived in rural areas make group meetings. Groups Recover Together shifted almost entirely to telehealth delivery in 14 days for the more than 8,000 people it serves.
The switch wasn’t without challenges. Groups Recover Together helped members establish internet access, set up the required technology, and get comfortable using it.
“[Our members] knew if this was going to be the way they could be with their community, they were going to try it,” said Hassey. “I have some people say, ‘I like this better because I don’t have to look at a group of people to share.’ They can look away from their screen.”
The organization has since learned it could reach more people than ever before because telehealth eliminated geographic barriers. About a third of its members now live outside of a county where Groups Recover Together has a physical office.
“The benefit of telehealth today is for the first time you can reach out your hand to get treatment and treatment is there immediately,” said Cooper Zelnick, senior vice president, corporate development and strategy at Groups Recover Together. “We all know that the window of vulnerability and courage that leads to someone asking for help is really small and often that willingness to change can disappear. For anyone who is struggling and needs help and wants to make a change, it’s now maybe an easier time than ever and help is available.”