The COVID-19 pandemic escalated the mental health crisis in the U.S., with researchers estimating that 1 in 3 employees will develop a mental illness in the next 12 months. With the majority of Americans part of the U.S. workforce, the onus is increasingly on employers to offer solutions that address ongoing mental health concerns. With mental health providers scarce, a transformative plethora of new treatment options are available, including digital mental health tools and the ability to access care via the privacy of one’s home.
The strain of the pandemic combined with workplace demands has created an inflection point for mental health treatment options, emphasizing finding the right way to provide support. Many people are willing to use technology such as apps, modules, chatbots, and videos to access help in resolving their mental health needs. But technology, while ideal for scaling care to people with lower acuity mental health conditions, can only go so far for someone in crisis. That’s where more intensive, face-to-face interventions with a clinician may be needed. Finding the right mix of technology and in-person interactions to address each individual’s unique mental health needs is paramount.
Digital treatment options
Employer support for mental health has grown tremendously since the onset of the pandemic, with new research estimating that while 83 percent of employees said their workplace was supportive during this time of uncertainty, 56 percent of respondents have considered leaving their careers or jobs and of those, 1 in 4 cite mental health needs as the reason for the switch. It’s crucial for evidence-based digital mental health resources to have clinical backing to support positive outcomes. Most companies provide some level of access to digital mental health tools including online resources and apps, as well as employee assistance programs (EAPs) that provide psychological support for employees via telephone. Advantages of digital tools include the ability to access treatment privately from a mobile device or at home, while EAPs offer direct telephone access for employees who are struggling.
For those with more severe mental health issues, a licensed clinician is needed. Currently, there is a clinician shortage in the U.S. with only 26.9 percent of need met. Most professionals are booked out with long waiting lists, so it’s a good idea to start looking for a provider early to account for waiting time until your preferred provider is available. Another reason to start early is that the first professional might not be the right fit for you or your loved one. Unfortunately, this is common and it’s easier to deal with if you are prepared and recognize that you’ll need to “shop” for the right person until you find them. Once you have a good match, your chances of a good outcome are much better.
Prevention at all levels
Regardless of how people are accessing help to cope with mental health concerns, the goal is to help people feel better quickly. A key step is prevention, which occurs at multiple levels. Individual-level prevention is about resilience training and providing access to evidence-based mental health skills training. At a people leader level, that’s about providing mental health first aid training. At a leadership and policy level, that’s about designing work to improve psychological safety and reduce the known psychological hazards such as lack of support or poor role definition – a recent Google study found that psychological safety is the best predictor of team performance.
It’s a common myth that we shouldn’t talk with people about suicide but addressing suicide directly is actually recommended. If a person reports that they have been thinking about it, and especially if they say that they have a plan or intent to hurt themselves, stronger measures are needed. These usually involve staying with the person until you can get them to a professional, even if that’s getting them connected to a suicide hotline as a first step. There is a great program called Mental Health First Aid that teaches the steps for dealing with situations where you need to intervene to get someone to support immediately.
Helping the whole person
The reality of the last two years is that almost all of us have experienced some mental health disorder symptoms, and that mental and physical health are equally important components of overall health. We call these subclinical symptoms, or symptoms that are there but that don’t meet full criteria for a disorder. Most of us have experienced subclinical symptoms, or psychosocial stressors, since the start of the pandemic due to the stress that we’ve been under. These can include things like divorce, illness, job loss, and even things like stressful homeschooling. If you get enough of them, you’re more likely to tip over into subclinical or clinical levels of symptoms, including increasing the risk for many types of physical health problems, particularly long-lasting conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. The setpoint of our average well-being levels has shifted down the spectrum over the last few years. That means that almost all of us can benefit from seeing a provider and getting professional mental health support, whether through a digital tool or via face-to-face therapy.
It’s important to think about the total person, and all of the facets that may need treatment. Using technology that integrates siloed services into one ecosystem has the advantage of being able to provide highly coordinated care, whether that’s for mental health, chronic condition management, substance use monitoring, managed behavioral health, or other needs.
Jay Spence is a psychologist.
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