When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Amanda Preston’s in-person therapy sessions at Atrium Health went virtual. Making the switch, she soon realized, only contributed to her mental health progress. Finding that many patients shared similar experiences, Atrium Health now plans to make virtual therapy services a permanent offering.

Your Health | 4 days ago

The Benefits of Virtual Therapy and Why It's Here to Stay

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Amanda Preston’s in-person therapy sessions at Atrium Health went virtual. Making the switch, she soon realized, only contributed to her mental health progress. Finding that many patients shared similar experiences, Atrium Health now plans to make virtual therapy services a permanent offering.

Amanda “Mandy” Preston is a 27-year-old wife, new mom and financial analyst who has walked through life with a chronic headache since she was a teenager.

As if the constant pain wasn’t bad enough, the headache also contributes to depression, anxiety and insomnia.

“It would get so overwhelming that I would just shut down and not do anything at all,” she recalls.

About 3 years ago, she’d had enough and decided to try therapy at Atrium Health.

Finding a better way

While no medical solution could be found for her chronic headache, she was prescribed medications to relieve her anxiety and depression – and she began talk therapy (also known as psychotherapy), which aims to help people gain a deeper understanding of themselves and make positive changes in their lives so they can better manage their symptoms.

Mandy also learned that she has obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), which is characterized as perfectionism and a need for control (without flexibility) that interferes with completing tasks. This discovery and the talk therapy she received gave her greater insight into herself and why she did certain things, like not letting anyone else do the dishes because she thought “they didn’t do them right.”

A few months into therapy, Mandy decided to go off medication because she and her husband were trying to conceive their first child. Leaning heavily into talk therapy, she continued to make progress.

Her therapist Kim R. Phillips, MS, LCMHC, a psychotherapist at Atrium Health, helped her develop the skills she needed to work through her mental health issues, mostly by using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

The goal of CBT is to alter thought patterns or behaviors that are causing problems and ultimately change the way they feel. And the goal of ACT is to develop mental and emotional flexibility through practicing mindfulness and self-acceptance. Kim found a way to combine these 2 methods in a way that resonated with Mandy.

“We examined how her thoughts, triggers and behaviors were contributing to the difficulties she was having and explored ways to alter those patterns through journaling, mindfulness, reframing her thoughts, thought defusion, managing her expectations around perfectionism, and making sure she gets enough sleep when she’s feeling anxious or depressed,” says Kim. “All these techniques flowed together, really helping her manage her anxiety, depression and OCPD.”

Making the switch to virtual

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Mandy’s therapy sessions went from in-person to virtual, she was more than open to the change.

For a couple of years, she made the trek from South Carolina to Charlotte for monthly therapy appointments. Usually scheduled in the middle of a workday, her appointments with the drive back forth took up a considerable chunk of time – and stressed her out, especially if there was traffic or bad weather.

“I used to have a lot of anxiety leading up to my in-person appointments,” she says. “Once we went virtual, I was more excited because I could focus on the therapy instead of worrying about the other factors, like my commute.”

She also had her daughter, Natalie, at this point, so being able to meet with her therapist virtually became even more convenient.

“Becoming a new mom during a pandemic isn’t easy, but having my baby girl right there during therapy really put me at ease.”

Not only was virtual therapy more convenient for Mandy. It also proved to be just as effective, if not more so.

“As of now, she’s off her medications, in partial remission of depression, and while she still has anxiety and OCPD, she’s managing her stress and emotions in a much better way, so they’re not disabling,” says Kim. “She still struggles with her chronic headache and related sleep issues from time to time, but she has tools now to manage them. They’re not these huge problems in her life anymore.”

Virtual therapy is here to stay

Even though the reason Atrium Health made virtual therapy appointments more widely available was because of the pandemic, it’s been such a success, with patients and therapists, that it’s something we want to continue to offer after the pandemic ends, in addition to in-person sessions.

“I do think some patients enjoy virtual sessions more because of the convenience factor,” says Kim. “They’re more relaxed, they’re in their home and in some ways they’re able to better focus on what we’re talking about.”

Virtual therapy has also improved Atrium Health’s adult outpatient therapy no-show rate: It was 14% in 2019, but now it’s down to 9%.

“Offering virtual care is really a no brainer,” says Kim. “We’ll have clients who are out running errands, and it ends up taking longer than expected. Instead of missing their appointment, they’re able to call their therapist as they’re driving home or sit in their parked car and do the session through video on their phone.”

Still, there are a few challenges to virtual care. For instance, some patients don’t feel like they can openly talk at home and prefer to see their therapist in person, in a safe space. Others, who aren’t tech-savvy, sometimes find it difficult to set up a video call. And there are also severely-ill patients who require in-person care. For these reasons among others, in-person therapy appointments are still needed, but there’s definitely a strong case – and place – for virtual therapy as well.


Learn more about behavioral health services at Atrium Heath, including talk therapy, here.

To set up a therapy or other mental health appointment, call Atrium Health’s 24/7 Behavioral Health Help Line: 704-444-2400.