Virtual care's role in combating the youth mental health crisis

During the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of depression and anxiety rose across the U.S. This crisis brought digital technologies into the spotlight, with patients, providers and investors taking notice. In fact, in the first three quarters of 2021, investors poured $3.1 billion into the sector, according to Rock Health. 

While the bulk of digital health tools are dedicated to adult patients, the world of pediatric behavioral healthcare is quickly transforming. 

“Unfortunately, what’s happened in 2021 and pediatric mental health has been pretty tough for families,” Naomi Allen, cofounder and CEO of pediatric behavioral health company Brightline, told MobiHealthNews.

“You know, some folks may have seen, but last year it really became front-page news just how much COVID has exacerbated the already existing challenges around pediatric mental health.”

According to a meta-analysis published in JAMA, the prevalence of depression in children and adolescents during the pandemic was 25.2%, and anxiety was 20.5%. 

“Even pre-COVID, we had a pretty radical shortage of pediatric-trained therapists, psychiatrists, prescribers, speech language pathologists in the country, and certainly during COVID I think the needs have been greater for pediatric behavioral health support,” Allen said.

“The American Association of Pediatrics [and the] American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry declared a state of emergency for the country last year, just given the impact that it’s had on mental health for kids and adolescents and teens.”

Allen said that virtual therapies easily fit into the traditional model of care for children. 

“If you think about mental health, a lot of the way that we support children and families is through therapy, and that is often done through talk therapy. It can be aided by digital interventions, and in the areas that families can exercise digital interventions together to practice skills that kids may be learning.

“It allows them to be in their natural environment, their natural habitat, and so more comfortable to open up and talk about challenges they may be facing. And it’s just frankly more convenient for families who, especially during COVID, have been perhaps nervous to get out and about.”

In 2022, legislation and regulations could help shape the future of pediatric virtual care. 

“I think there’s two main things that we’re seeing that are really evolving. One is CMS’ perspective on whether to continue to provide full funding and multi-state licensure for virtual care. And that’s true not just for behavioral health, that’s true for all virtual services. And we are seeing a movement towards a continuation of support for virtual-first care models in terms of reimbursement structures, in terms of fast-tracking across state licensure for clinicians and other types of infrastructural regulations that would essentially allow virtual and continue to be a pivotal care model for the U.S. 

“Also in our space, because of the radical shortage of licensed clinicians, we’re actually seeing health plans take, I think, a much more innovative approach to the role of trained coaches to deliver support for low acuity needs for families that may have very short skill-building based needs for care rather than a more clinical therapeutic model. And we are seeing health plans get pretty innovative there just to help scale.”

As for the future of care, Allen said that she is watching the employer space. 

“I think the world is evolving, and I think employers will continue to emphasize this family-first benefit to retain employed parents.”

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