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Virtual Visits Make Accessing Mental Health Help Easier

There’s no need to drive across town or book a babysitter to make time for your own well-being. Thanks to Kaiser Permanente’s robust online offerings, from video calls to a new chat with a therapist feature, professional help is just a click away for Coloradans.

When Jahnte Sowell moved from Denver to Brighton, he thought the added distance—a one-hour drive each way—would end his relationship with the psychiatrist he’d spent three years building a connection with. It had been difficult to reach out for help initially. Would he have to start that process all over with someone new?

Instead, as a Kaiser Permanente member, he was able to connect with his psychiatrist, Sammie Moss, MD, virtually and continue his treatment uninterrupted. “The app allows me to speak with him in private, wherever I want to,” Sowell says. “It was a huge relief to know that I could schedule an appointment, a video conference, with Dr. Moss and not skip a beat.”

Jahnte Sowell working on his computer

Travel time, childcare needs, an inflexible work schedule, pandemic-related concerns, and many other factors can impact a person’s ability to get vital care. In fact, the Colorado Health Institute found that more than one in 10 Coloradans said they didn’t access needed mental health care in the past year for many of these reasons. These obstacles become even more pronounced when it comes to mental health, which still carries a stigma that can deter people from seeking needed care.

Kaiser Permanente wants to limit those impediments—and eliminate the stigma altogether. The health care provider has long offered telehealth options to its members, but the COVID-19 pandemic buoyed its efforts. Today, individuals can connect with a Kaiser Permanente mental health specialist in person or via online chat (available weekdays, from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.), on-demand video visits, phone calls, or even email. “It allows us to really get to people no matter where they are in Colorado,” says Dr. Moss, a psychiatrist who’s worked at Kaiser Permanente since 2017. “It can remove some of the barriers, and for somebody who’s wanting to get help, it makes it a little easier for them to take that next step.”

Sowell has found that virtual visits make it easier than ever to connect with Dr. Moss. “It’s catered to my lifestyle,” Sowell says. “There have been times when I’ve been in my office and had a video conference with him. I’ve been in my vehicle and pulled off to the side of the road and had a video conference with him.” Every Kaiser Permanente patient has the same convenient access to their physicians, whether they’ve been in treatment or years or are at the start of their mental health care journey.

Addressing mental health issues is vital to a person’s overall well-being. According to the American Heart Association, individuals with untreated mental health issues have double the risk for heart attacks and strokes. Because the majority of folks bring up mental health concerns during visits with their primary care doctors, Kaiser Permanente has embedded behavioral health specialists in most of its Colorado medical offices. That means patients don’t have to waste time tracking down referrals or scheduling follow-up appointments; there’s someone there to immediately address any concerns and help facilitate future visits as needed. Kaiser Permanente is one of the only health care systems in the state to offer this kind of same-day access to mental health services—a significant benefit, particularly when need for this type of aid has grown fourfold during the pandemic. Kaiser Permanente alone has seen a 1,000 percent increase in the number of on-demand visits scheduled with its mental health providers since the onset of the public health crisis.

An integrated health care system that views patients as a whole person leads to better care. Dr. Moss, for example, can connect with his patients’ other doctors to make sure medications aren’t interacting poorly. In general, he has found that offering virtual visit options makes it less likely that patients will cancel appointments and helps reduce some of the worry associated with walking into a psychiatrist’s office.

For Sowell, there was an added benefit of being connected to Dr. Moss: They are both Black men. “It was easier for me to relate to him and for him to understand that some of the issues and some of the anxiety that I have are valid,” Sowell says. “He understood exactly what I was going through and gave me a lot of tools to help me cope with the anxiety.”

Research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Mental Health America shows that those who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color are less likely to seek out mental health services and to receive necessary care. “There are not a lot of psychiatrists who are Black in the country, much less in Colorado,” Dr. Moss says. “I feel it’s important to be here because I know I can be available to people of color.”

Nowadays, Sowell still launches his video feed to connect with Dr. Moss whenever he needs a little extra help. He’s thriving and turns to exercise and outdoor adventures for stress relief. Most importantly, he is available for his family, enjoying bike rides with his daughters and date nights with his wife. “I am present. I am more active. I am an involved father,” he says. “My overall life experience has dramatically changed for the better.”

Find Your Words

We don’t have trouble telling someone about the ankle we sprained while hiking, but for some reason, it can be difficult—and scary—to share mental health concerns. FindYourWords.org is an online program launched by Kaiser Permanente that encourages people to speak out about mental health. On the website, you’ll find self-care tips, a depression screening tool, ideas for discussing mental health with children, and even scripts for how to bring up depression or other mental health issues with friends or family. Above all, remember: You are not alone. It’s OK to not be OK, and it’s a sign of strength to ask for a hand when you need it.

If you or someone you know is struggling, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or text “WORDS” to 741741.