October 28, 2021

When things fell apart, telehealth was her lifeline

Stuck at home during the pandemic, a Kaiser Permanente member with autoimmune disease relied on her phone and computer to connect to mental health support.

At age 63, Elizabeth was content. She was in a long-term relationship, enjoyed spending time with her adult daughters, and loved her job teaching deaf students at a Northern California middle school.

And 15 years after being hospitalized for severe depression, the Kaiser Permanente member had learned to cope with the sadness and anxiety she still experienced by working with a therapist and attending classes on topics such as couples’ communication and healthy living.

Then things began to unravel for Elizabeth (who asked that we use her first name only to protect her privacy). An autoimmune disease forced her to take early retirement and move to a more affordable home, and she and her partner broke up.

“I spiraled down into a very deep depression,” she said.

Connecting to intensive support

Elizabeth’s therapist, Sabrina Chaumette, a licensed clinical social worker, referred her to the Intensive Outpatient Program at the Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center.

“It’s a program for people who are in crisis and need a high level of services, but they don’t need or want to be in the hospital,” Chaumette explained. “They come in 3 mornings a week and work with a psychiatrist who evaluates their medications and a team of providers who offer everything from mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy to life skills and help with issues such as job loss and housing problems.”

Slowly but surely, things began to improve for Elizabeth. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. At risk of severe illness due to her autoimmune disorder, she isolated herself at home, and her mental health took a turn for the worse.

“I was having a hard time even getting out of bed,” she said.

Bridging the digital divide

As Kaiser Permanente quickly transitioned most in-person appointments to phone and video to prevent the spread of the virus, Elizabeth struggled to adjust.

“I am technologically a dinosaur, and I needed a lot of help from the administrative staff to learn how to use the video platform,” she said. “And it was awkward and uncomfortable to be sitting in front of my laptop crying. I didn’t turn my video camera on for the first 3 months. But then I realized, this is my key to staying sane and getting healthy.”

In addition to her sessions with Chaumette, Elizabeth began participating in several telehealth groups for people living with depression, anxiety, and trauma.

“It’s been a real lifesaver for me throughout this difficult time,” she said. “I feel comfortable and seen.”

A virtual lifeline

On the days when she doesn’t have individual or group therapy, Elizabeth takes advantage of virtual health education classes through Kaiser Permanente East Bay Behavioral Health on topics such as improving sleep and reducing stress through mindfulness.

She’s also an avid user of the Calm self-care app, available to Kaiser Permanente members at no cost.

“I do the Daily Calm meditation every morning, and I fall asleep to a sleep story every night,” she said. “It’s gotten to the point where, when I open the app, my dogs know to come into the bedroom and lie down with me.”

Another turn in the road

Just as she began to feel comfortable going out into the world again, Elizabeth slipped while walking her 2 dogs, fracturing her ankle and injuring her foot.

“Not being able to walk or drive has forced me to rely on telehealth more than ever,” she said by email. “And it’s working. Prepping for the surgery and after-care have involved my phone, my computer, video visits, and a few miracles thrown in for good measure. I’ve kept going to all my mental health groups and appointments with no problems. What a story!”

Learn more about mental health care at Kaiser Permanente, and find out about ways to access care through telehealth.