Behavioral health providers are some of the unsung heroes of COVID-19. Since the virus has hit communities, we’ve all seen many images of their medical counterparts in masks, staffing the Emergency Rooms and the intensive care units, caring for people with COVID-19. And, we can’t thank them enough for the sacrifices they have made for all of us by putting their lives at risk to care for the sickest of the sick.

What we don’t see as often is how behavioral health providers have stepped up to provide treatment for the “silent pandemic” that is mental health. Without them, many of those who have been in treatment and those new to treatment since COVID-19 may have had a more difficult struggle as we’ve sought to place more physical distance between each other.

As part of Mental Health Awareness month, Anthem is helping spread the message that, even while we may be physically distant from one another, you are not alone. We salute those behavioral health providers who have worked tirelessly to figure out how to safely deliver services at a time when we need them more than ever.

Massachusetts-based Groups Recover Together is an example of how behavioral health providers have used innovation and creativity to continue to provide access to treatment for substance use disorder. As Cooper Zelnick, senior vice president, corporate development and strategy at Groups Recover Together, shared, “Addiction is fundamentally a disease of isolation.” This premise serves as the guide for the group that combines medication assisted therapy and group therapy. And, as Groups’ experience demonstrates, today it’s perhaps easier and quicker to get treatment than ever.

Before COVID-19, about 8 percent of the provider’s member appointments were conducted via telehealth as a way to assist those who lived in rural areas make group meetings. March 13—the date the National Emergency was put into place and led to stay-at-home orders in most states—changed all of that.

“I think the worst fear of any counselor of substance abuse is to get a call or email that you have to suspend your office and shut everything down,” said Anne Hassey, counselor for Groups Recover Together. “Your instant thought is, ‘oh my goodness, what are my people going to do? And how will they avoid relapse?”

Some of the issues or triggers underlying substance use disorder — such as anxiety, panic and depression – would likely accompany stay-at-home orders.

“That brought on a new level of planning on the fly,” Hassey said. “None of us have faced this kind of public health crisis in a lifetime. I don’t think in the 20 years I’ve been a counselor we could have prepared for anything like this.”

Groups Recover Together shifted almost entirely to telehealth delivery in 14 days. Today, more than 90 percent of the organization’s intake and group therapy takes place through telehealth.

And, according to Zelnick, the organization’s attendance numbers are higher than they’ve ever been. But, the switch wasn’t without challenges. Groups Recover Together had to make sure all of the staff had laptops at home with the appropriate connections and that the telecom platforms were stable.

More challenging was ensuring that members stayed connected. The organization’s IT team worked with members to help them download apps, get online and fix their cameras. Other parts of the organization helped people access government programs so they could receive subsidies for Internet service if they needed it. It also meant establishing lock boxes for urine samples at places throughout the community so that some of the pre-COVID accountability could continue.

“I think everyone was afraid when we transitioned that it wouldn’t be the same — that the magic of group would be lost, that the connection would be lost,” Zelnick said. “On top of that we had lots of members who were uncomfortable using technology, who didn’t want to log in on video, who were worried about the change.”

But, members were open to trying something new if they could continue their therapy with the groups they had come to know.

“They knew if this was going to be the way they could be with their community they were going to try it,” Hassey said. “I’ve had some really deep group conversations on telehealth and again that surprised me. 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.”

California member Dick Cool said telehealth seems to have opened a ‘sharing door’ for some members.

“Some of the people who haven’t opened up in that one-room atmosphere have really opened up (through telehealth) because they are not next to someone else they really don’t know that well and they are in an environment of their choosing,” Cool said. “They are deciding where to hold their meeting. They feel more comfortable and I feel some people are opening up more.”

“The real power of telehealth isn’t in replacing the in-person interactions that help us, it’s in augmenting them,” Zelnick said. “It’s a perfect example of how we can use technology to improve our lives and enhance connections.”

Groups Recover Together plans to conduct outcomes-based research and determine how telehealth therapy delivered during COVID-19 compares to the more traditional in-person therapy and then decide how to incorporate in its offerings for the future.

“The benefit of telehealth today is for the first time you can reach out your hand to get treatment and treatment is there immediately,” Zelnick said. “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.”

#Not Alone