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Wellbeing at Risk: Millennials’ mental health issues increasing during COVID-19

Millennials are more likely than Gen Xers or Baby Boomers to have behavioral health issues, a new BlueCross BlueShield Association report finds—and the COVID-19 pandemic is making matters worse.

According to “Millennial Health Trends in Behavioral Conditions”—the latest report in BCBSA’s “Health of America” series—92% of millennials say the pandemic is hurting their mental health. The report also concludes that the COVID-19 crisis has sparked a rise in both depression and alcohol/substance abuse.

“All of us are doing many things each day in an effort to cope with this pandemic,” said Karie Batzler, director of behavioral health for Capital BlueCross. “Some of those things are healthy and some of them are not, and I think millennials are emblematic of us all.”

The report sampled 55 million U.S. millennials—those born between 1981 and 1996—with commercial health insurance. Its analysis produced additional sobering conclusions:

  • Nearly a third of millennials have a behavioral health condition.
  • Millennials with behavioral health conditions are at twice the risk of having a chronic physical condition.
  • While millennials from majority Black and Hispanic communities have lower rates of mental health issues than millennials from white communities, that data is likely due to under-diagnosis.
  • Millennials diagnosed with an opioid-use disorder are 46% less healthy overall than their peers, and Blacks and Hispanics have lower overall rates of treatment than whites.

Because millennials now comprise more of the United States workforce than any other generation, and because they have also overtaken Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest population segment, their mental health issues may hurt the economy and have broad health and social implications. The most immediate concern, however, is what this rise in behavioral health problems might mean to millennials’ long-term wellbeing.

“Unfortunately, the rise in behavioral health conditions also puts millennials at greater risk of having chronic physical conditions as they age,” said Dr. Jennifer Chambers, chief medical officer at Capital BlueCross. “That can mean more cases of heart disease, high blood pressure or other conditions that can shorten their lives. One of the most effective things we can do during this pandemic is create a teachable moment for millennials to learn how to protect and maintain their mental and physical health.”

Educating millennials about how strongly their mental health connects to their overall health is a good place to start. So is teaching them how to best use their insurance coverage to address their behavioral health.

The latter is an ongoing effort at Capital BlueCross, which is concerned about a BCBSA survey finding that 62% of millennials said they only see their doctor when sick or in the midst of a medical emergency. Also worrisome: nearly half, 48%, said they would delay medical treatment due to cost.

Capital BlueCross tackles the issue not only through education—advising members on the most effective ways to use their healthcare coverage—but also through modernization that meets millennials’ needs. In a series of BCBSA-hosted listening sessions, millennials said they wanted the flexibility and convenience telehealth offers. Capital BlueCross heard them; it encourages use of its Virtual Care telehealth app, and visits to the app have soared 439% during COVID-19.

To help members access care, the health insurer temporarily waived member fees for Virtual Care visits for psychiatry, counseling visits and medical consultations.

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