Interdisciplinary Team Suggests Ways to Address Pandemic Telemental Health Disparities

A person, pictured only below the shoulders, sits on a yellow chair while looking at their phone.

ALBANY, N.Y. (Nov. 18, 2021) – An interdisciplinary team spanning the School of Public Health, the School of Social Welfare and the College of Arts & Sciences found there is a lack of research guiding telemental healthcare for pandemic relief, combined with an inadequate ability for the system to address telemental health disparities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), communities have faced increased mental health challenges directly and indirectly from COVID-19. Strategies used to mitigate the spread of disease, such as social distancing, have led to an explosion in the use of telemental health services. However, the UAlbany team notes that not everyone has equal access or usage, and this may compound existing health disparities.

Published in the International Journal for Quality in Health Care, Department of Health Policy, Management, and Behavior professors Feng (Johnson) Qian and Julia Hastings, who also holds an appointment the School of Social Welfare, along with Rukhsana Ahmed from UAlbany’s Department of Communication, examined telemental health services in the U.S. in relation to the pandemic.

“Required technologies, language and communication, cultural competence and digital literacy all serve as barriers, particularly for underserved communities, racial minority groups and older adults,” Qian explained. “As a part of pandemic response, we must consider how to address these access problems along with how to strengthen our delivery to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate treatment.”

Qian, the lead writer for the article, said that for Asian Americans, mental health services have largely failed to reach them, and they are less likely to seek out services due to stigma and shame about reaching out for help that other groups may not feel. In addition, Asian Americans have faced a dramatic increase in racism, harassment and attacks since the start of the pandemic, which may take a severe mental toll.

The team recommends that actions are taken simultaneously at the national, state, community and patient levels. Suggestions include:

  • Reimbursement policies that encourage underserved and ethnic minorities to seek out telemental health treatment
  • Linguistically adapted telemental health services to increase uptake and success of services
  • Full integration of telemental health services from providers to help reduce inequities

“If we want to mitigate the telemental health divide, the time to act is now,” says Qian. “Addressing telemental health disparities is a complex issue, but with a multi-pronged approach that mobilizes resources at various levels, we can establish an effective and sustainable telemental health system,” he continued.

The full piece can be viewed in the International Journal for Quality in Health Care.