COVID-19 and Virtual Counseling: Accessing Treatment for Substance Use and Addiction
Many of us are understandably experiencing increased stress and anxiety brought on by the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. According to an April 2020 poll¹, nearly half (45%) of adults in the United States feel the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health.
Individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions, particularly those with substance use disorders (SUDs)², are vulnerable to psychological distress during this time. The stress and isolation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have created a unique set of challenges and hardships—both for those with substance use disorders and those in recovery, with significant increases in substance use³recorded since March 2020.
As a result, it’s important—now more than ever—to reach out for mental health support. With more mental health providers offering telehealth services, the new realities of health care create opportunities to reach more people, broadening the reach of treatment programs and recovery support systems. Whether you’re looking to migrate your counseling sessions to an online platform or start counseling for the first time, here’s how virtual counseling can help you find comfort and strength.
What is Virtual Counseling?
Virtual counseling⁴ has many names, including teletherapy, telehealth counseling, online counseling, and remote counseling. Virtual counseling includes consultation, treatment, and education through a HIPAA-compliant platform over the internet. Licensed counselors use a secure platform to protect your information while providing the same quality service you would receive during a face-to-face session.
When it comes to virtual counseling, most people think of Zoom calls and Skype video chats. However, virtual counseling is much more than that, with many providers offering mental health resources through video conferencing, live chat, and smartphone apps. Some telehealth platforms provide 24/7 access to mental health support, which can be especially beneficial for individuals with more severe mental health concerns.
Before starting your search for a telehealth provider, decide which methods of communication you’d prefer and which you’d like to avoid. The four most common types of virtual counseling are video counseling, written message counseling, phone counseling, and audio/video counseling. Many counselors also offer individual sessions, group counseling, and couples counseling.
Benefits of Virtual Counseling
With an increasing sense of uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, a growing number of people who did not previously experience a need for mental health support are now facing mental health concerns. Fortunately, with the help of online counseling, it’s possible to take advantage of the benefits of counseling from the comfort and privacy of your own home.
Depending on your lifestyle and mental health concerns, online therapy can provide far-reaching and long-lasting benefits from a wide selection of providers. Here are the key benefits of virtual counseling.
Virtual Counseling is Convenient
Finding a new counselor might seem like a daunting task, especially if you’re already feeling stressed. Even though the thought of trying something new, like online counseling, can feel intimidating to take on, the current situation offers a great opportunity to take advantage of low-threshold access to mental health care.
Unlike traditional in-person counseling appointments, telehealth clients can avoid the hassle of commuting from office to office or searching among the limited number of counselors near their home. Additionally, the ability to access mental health care from the privacy of their home allows clients to feel more relaxed during sessions, potentially improving their comfort in discussing problems.
Online mental health services also make it easy for clients and counselors to choose the best appointment time and communication method that work for their situation. Virtual counseling clients often find it easier to stick with treatment, with flexible schedules that work with career and family commitments. To enjoy the benefits of online counseling from the comfort of your own home, all you need is a reliable internet connection.
Virtual Counseling Can Be as Effective as In-Person Therapy
Multiple studies have shown that telehealth sessions are equally effective as traditional in-person sessions. In one study by the Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare, telehealth patients reported improved outcomes⁵ after one month of online mental health sessions. In the same study, 93% of patients reported feeling as comfortable during sessions as they did during in-person visits, 85% were comfortable in their ability to express their feelings, and 96% expressed satisfaction with virtual sessions.
Multiple studies have also shown the success of online programs in treating a wide range of mental health concerns, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)⁶ and addiction⁷.
Online Counseling May Allow You To Work with More Counselors
To provide greater access to mental health care during the pandemic, the United States Department of Health and Human Services relaxed HIPAA constraints⁸ that previously made it challenging for providers to meet with clients over telehealth platforms.
With low-threshold access to mental health care, new clients can attain a more comprehensive selection of online counselors and treatment programs. If you’re seeking specialty treatment or looking for a specialized approach to support your specific mental health needs, online counseling can help you access the treatment and recovery services you need.
Virtual Counseling Offers Support in a Time of Isolation
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced millions of people to avoid close contact with the people they interact with every day—from coworkers and colleagues to friends and family members. Combined with paranoia and an uncertain timeline, feelings of stress, anxiety, and loneliness are understandable.
Above all else, virtual counseling can serve as a valuable source of social connection and support in an environment that feels otherwise isolating. Counseling provides an avenue to manage your mental health, stay connected, and find the support you need.
Online counseling also helps clients maintain interpersonal relationships from a distance. From online support groups to couples counseling, working with an online mental health provider can help you foster healthy relationships, even in the face of physical distance.
Especially for those struggling with substance use and addiction, virtual group counseling provides the opportunity to meet others facing the same struggles and overcome stigma. According to Project MATCH findings, social connection with others is the most important aspect of rehab treatment⁹. Online advocacy groups and recovery programs are valuable resources for individuals looking to stop their substance use altogether.
Substance Use and COVID-19
According to public health officials, the COVID-19 pandemic can exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions, including addiction and substance use disorders, by creating a new set of stressors¹⁰. The stress of contracting COVID-19, social distancing, and unemployment can be significant triggers for those struggling with addiction, and many people turn to substances to cope with stress.
In a survey conducted by the Addiction Policy Forum¹¹, three-quarters of respondents reported negative emotional changes related to the pandemic, including heightened worry, fear, sadness, and loneliness. These emotions increase the risk for relapse, and circumstances have made peer support and in-person support groups much more difficult.
Ina July 2020 analysis by Millennium Health, researchers found significant increases in non-prescribed fentanyl, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine use after COVID-19 was declared as a national emergency. Public health officials across the United States have also reported spikes in drug overdose deaths, with 30 states reporting increases in opioid-involved deaths.
Over time, substance abuse can lead to substance dependence syndrome (addiction)¹², which involves a cluster of behavioral, cognitive, and physiological symptoms that develop after repeated substance use. Addiction involves a strong desire to use a substance despite harmful consequences.
Combined with the impact COVID-19 has on individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions and SUDs, convenient and low-threshold access to online treatment and recovery programs is paramount. Online counseling services are not only effective in addiction treatment, but they can also serve as a gateway to residential programs or supplement face-to-face programs.
How to Seek Help if You're Struggling with Substance Use
Substance use isn’t a character flaw or a sign of weakness. Abusing substances can lead to changes in the brain, leading to powerful cravings and a compulsion to use that makes sobriety feel impossible. But recovery is never out of reach, regardless of how hopeless your situation may feel or how many times you’ve tried before. With the right treatment and support system, recovery is always possible.
For many people struggling with substance use and addiction, the most challenging step toward recovery is acknowledging that you have a problem and deciding to make a change. It’s normal to question whether you’re ready to start treatment or whether you have what it takes to quit.
Choosing sobriety requires changing the way you cope with stress, how you spend your free time, and who you allow in your life. You might feel conflicted about giving up your drug of choice, even when you know it has harmful consequences. Recovery requires time, motivation, and support, and by embracing this change, you can overcome addiction and take control of your life.
When considering recovery, it’s time to explore your treatment options. While treatment plans can vary according to the specific substance, a comprehensive treatment program typically involves detoxification, behavioral counseling, medication, and long-term follow-up. However, addiction treatment is not one-size-fits-all, and it’s important to work with your health care professionals to create a customized treatment plan to match your specific needs.
How to Help a Loved One Struggling with Substance Abuse
Finding out that your loved one is struggling with substance use can be heartbreaking. While it’s normal to feel overwhelmed, it’s important to remind yourself that recovery is possible, and you can help your loved one access the support they need. If you believe a friend or family member is struggling with substance use, look out for the behavioral and physical changes¹³linked to substance use.
If you’ve never been exposed to substance use or addiction, you might be misinformed about what addiction is, who it affects, and how it affects them. To better understand what your loved one is going through, it’s imperative to take the time to educate yourself. The more informed you are, the more you’ll be able to help and support them. Some helpful resources to start with include the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)¹⁴, theNational Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)¹⁵, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA)¹⁶.
Above all else, it’s important to remember that addiction is treatable. If your loved one is struggling with addiction, working with health care professionals is integral to develop a comprehensive treatment plan to recover and avoid relapse.
Finding Online Treatment for Addiction
Although the pandemic has limited access to in-person recovery and treatment services, many counselors, support groups, and treatment facilities have migrated to online platforms. Right now, All Points North Lodge¹⁷ offers residential addiction treatment, virtual support groups, and online intensive outpatient and outpatient treatment services to provide high-quality care and treatment for our clients.
As a critical component in the treatment process, behavioral counseling serves as a valuable support system, especially during periods of acute stress. Because addiction affects your entire life—including your relationships, physical and mental health, and career—the success of your treatment depends on developing alternative ways to cope with stress and addressing the reasons why you started using substances.
During your search for an online behavioral counselor, prioritize licensed mental health professionals specializing in addiction treatment. Some treatment approaches to addiction¹⁸ include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), motivational interviewing, and rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT).
Substance use and addiction treatment is not a quick and easy process—the longer and more intense the substance use, the longer and more intense treatment you’ll need. In all cases, commitment to change and follow-up care are integral to a successful recovery.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be an ever-evolving reality, and those with addiction and in recovery from SUDs are particularly vulnerable to its effects. Although starting online counseling might feel intimidating, working with an experienced counselor can help you find healthy ways to cope with stress, manage your mental health, and regain strength.
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