Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, health professionals were already sounding alarms about the rise of mental health concerns in the United States. Now, as we’ve layered on fears of the virus, the economic impact of so many jobs lost, the isolation of social distancing, and the near-instantaneous shift to working from home, experts predict a sharp increase in depression and anxiety. In honor of May’s Mental Health Awareness Month, we offer insights about the mental health issues facing us today and how employers and health plans can help.
First, a statistic: according to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly half (45%) of U.S. adults reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress associated with the coronavirus.1
It’s not surprising. Overnight, the “coping mechanisms” that used to carry us through our days – socializing with friends, going to a sporting event, or hitting a spin class after work – were gone. Our routines are off, many are working from home with kids, and it’s difficult to practice critical self-care. Moreover, those who were already grappling with mental health or substance abuse issues can no longer rely on the usual support systems, like therapy or Alcoholics Anonymous.
Mental health impacts vary depending on life circumstances.
What’s become clear over the last couple of months is that our experience with this virus, and thus the mental health effects it has brought, are different depending on our age, occupation, socio-economic status, and health before the outbreak. Here are a few groups to be aware of as you consider the mental health effects on your employee or member population:
- Individuals with chronic conditions: In addition to being more vulnerable to the coronavirus, this group is at risk because mental health disorders are common comorbidities among patients with lung disease, asthma, heart conditions, and diabetes.
- Seniors: We know that seniors already experience loneliness at a higher rate than younger Americans. With the loss of routine and reduced contact with caregivers and loved ones, this segment of the population is at serious risk for depression.
- Teens and 20-somethings: This group already suffers more anxiety, depression, and a higher suicide rate than the general population, so the loss of social connections and missing out on important milestones will be felt profoundly. Young professionals living alone or with roommates in cities are navigating how to work and live in a small space. Others have gone home to live with parents, which can resurface a host of other stressors.
- Lower income individuals and those who have lost jobs. As we might imagine, those who are economically better off are reporting less stress. Even though the stresses of working from home (especially with children) are most definitely real, having a job and a sense of purpose can help people cope. Not surprisingly, “job loss is associated with increased depression, anxiety, distress, and low self-esteem; and may lead to higher rates of substance abuse disorder.”2
- Those on the front lines: It goes without saying that health care providers and other essential workers are experiencing a completely different level of stress. This group will likely need special attention and possibly mental health interventions.
So how can organizations provide mental health support now—and in the future?
It might be helpful to think about our support in terms of three areas: preventive measures, in-the-moment assistance, and treatment/ongoing support.3 Here are a few suggestions:
- Take inventory of the mental health support resources you have available right now and make sure they’re easy to access.
- Point people to stress reduction techniques, mindfulness and meditation apps, mental health education, resilience tools, and other well-being program elements.
- Coach managers to be more empathetic during this time, and to stay connected to employees however they can.
- Help remove the stigma around mental health by asking managers to talk more openly about mental health with simple statements like, “Not sure about you, but I’m feeling anxious today.”4
- Communicate openly and often, with honest and transparent information about what you do and don’t know right now.5
- Publicize hotlines and crisis support phone numbers, and ensure people know how to access counselors by phone or via telehealth.
- Communicate about lesser-known services of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). Many offer work-life services that can help employees navigate bill-paying or tap into community resources for financial assistance.
- Ensure employees and members know how mental health benefits work under their health plan (including inpatient and outpatient services), and how any needed prescription drugs will be covered.
- Understand that grief will be a major mental health concern in the coming months, as many individuals will have experienced the loss of a loved one or friend due to the pandemic. Employers may wish to review bereavement leave policies as well as the availability of grief counseling.
- In a sense, we will all be grieving over the loss of normalcy and our “old” lives, so even after the immediate crisis is over, keep mental health resources front and center.
No one knows when this public health crisis will abate, but when it finally does, one thing is for sure: we will be forever changed. If there’s a silver lining to be had, hopefully that will include increased acceptance and understanding of mental health issues and a greater willingness to prevent them from happening in the future. For more tips about how to manage mental health in the workplace, register for WebMD’s upcoming webinar.
Dr. Loren Soeiro joined the WebMD Health Services Clinical Advisory Board in 2016. He is a psychologist and psychotherapist, licensed in New York and board certified with the American Board of Professional Psychology, with over a decade of clinical experience.
- Webinar: Breaking Down the Stigma of Mental Health in the Workplace
- Blog: When it Comes to Mental and Emotional Well-Being, Remember Younger Workers
- Blog: Protecting Seniors From the Loneliness of COVID-19