Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Not Business as Usual: Mental wellness concerns and awareness rise amid pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has jolted society and changed the lives of millions.

Businesses have closed, jobs have been lost, and working conditions in many cases have changed dramatically as work-at-home protocols have been widely implemented.

So far, 2020 has been anything but business as usual.

One impact of the pandemic that might be less visible, but potentially very costly, is the toll it is taking on mental wellness. Social isolation, disrupted work and school schedules, and lost incomes have been heaped onto an array of pre-pandemic mental health issues.

According to a BlueCross BlueShield Association (BCBSA) report, the prevalence of several key mental health issues has increased during the pandemic:

  • Major depressive disorder has risen by 61.5%.
  • Tobacco use is up 53.3%.
  • Substance abuse is up 50.8%.
  • Anxiety has increased by 38.6%.
  • Alcohol abuse has risen by 24.9%.

These numbers take a toll on individuals, society and local businesses—providing a double whammy at a time when many businesses also are struggling due to pandemic-fueled shutdowns.

About 70% of the estimated 22.4 million illicit drug users 18 and over are full-time or part-time employees, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The Recovery Centers of America, using government data on everything from absenteeism and crime to lost earnings, estimates the overall economic loss at about $1.45 trillion annually, with productivity losses accounting for nearly $6 billion of that total.

With proper treatment, those who suffer from substance abuse disorders can go on to lead productive lives, many mental health experts say.

While the lingering pandemic has amplified existing mental health issues, it also has increased awareness of issues like stress, anxiety, depression and substance abuse, according to mental health professionals like Karie Batzler, director of behavioral health at Harrisburg-based Capital BlueCross.

It’s OK to “put it out there,” Batzler said. “Let it become a topic of discussion. Give legitimacy to it and permission to talk about it. Substance abuse is an issue that tends to be kept in the shadows.”

Many insurers and healthcare providers have stepped up efforts to address these issues and connect consumers to mental health resources.

Capital BlueCross, for instance, recently unveiled a new Mental Health and Wellness page on its corporate website that includes, among other things, a directory of key mental health resources and other organizations.

WellSpan Health, WITF’s “Transforming Health” program and Capital BlueCross teamed up to provide additional resources for boosting mental wellness. The “Summer Read” program, for example, promotes a book called “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy” by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and OptionB.Org founder and Wharton psychologist Adam Grant.

That selection ties into Transforming Health’s “Here With You” campaign, designed to promote physical and mental health.

Many employers also are looking for ways to make mental health counseling more accessible for their employees, including through the use of telehealth—the delivery of medical services through phone or videoconference.

A report by the BlueCross BlueShield Association noted that telehealth—often called “virtual care”—has increased by a factor of 1.6 since the summer of 2019, with more than half of that growth due to the pandemic. Demographically, the increase in telehealth use breaks down this way, according to the BCBSA:

  • Generation Z (ages 18-23) accounts for 35% of telehealth use.
  • Millennials (24-39) account for 30%.
  • Gen X (40-54) make up 21% of use.
  • Baby Boomers (55-75) account for 15% of use.

Insurers are adding incentives to encourage telehealth use. Capital BlueCross, for instance, is waiving copays, coinsurance and deductibles for members who access medical, psychiatry and counseling visits through its Virtual Care benefit through Oct. 23.

There is general anxiety over the virus itself, Batzler noted. There is stress among many people now working from home who may experience interruptions and distractions that did not exist at the office. Social distancing, mask wearing and other measures required to curb the spread of the virus have upended the many social norms that we use every day to communicate.

“In our world today, having a conversation face-to-face with a facial mask reduces our ability to read the non-verbal facial expressions that help us to understand the emotions of the speaker,” Batzler said.

“It’s a shame that it got labeled as social distancing,” she added. “Physical distancing would have been a more apt title. We all need connectedness, whether we connect by phone, videoconference, by writing a letter, or in face-to-face conversations. We all need that contact with other folks.”

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