October 27, 2020

How mental health troubles have flared during the COVID pandemic

By Accolade


Thirty percent of Americans in March. Forty percent in May. Fifty percent in July.

These aren’t COVID-19 infection percentages. They’re the rates of anxiety and depression among American adults in 2020, reflecting a sharp decline in the mental wellness of Americans over the course of the year.

That’s part of what’s driven Accolade to develop a new model of mental healthcare that integrates more effectively with other care plans. But the numbers aren’t abstractions, and have real impacts on individuals, families, businesses, and more.

Pandemic related stress on the rise

Stress in a pandemic can lead to more than burnout and as the pandemic continues, Americans’ mental health is increasingly at risk. Anxiety, depression, trauma or stress disorder symptoms, substance abuse, and even suicidal ideation are all becoming increasingly prevalent, according to research from organizations including the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF).

The Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that a majority of Americans are suffering from pandemic-related worries and stress, with 53% reporting that the pandemic had a negative effect on their mental health. Half of those (26% of the total) said that pandemic-related worries and stress had a “major impact” on their mental health, with the other half (28% of the total) saying it had a "minor impact.”

These numbers have risen dramatically since the KFF started polling these pandemic questions in March, when 32% of adults reported a negative impact on their mental health. In early April, it jumped to 45%, and was at 53% by July

That largely matches CDC findings from around the same time. Forty percent of adults polled were struggling with mental health issues at the time. Almost a third said they were experiencing anxiety or depression, 26% reported trauma or stress disorder symptoms, and 11% said they had had serious thoughts about suicide. Those numbers are a huge jump from last year, according to the CDC.

The impacts of mental health woes

Benefits, and especially health insurance benefits, are a clear priority for employees across industries. A 2017 study from the found that 87% of employees surveyed ranked health benefits as “very important” or “extremely important” to them. But part of keeping employees happy with their benefits is helping ensure they’re enrolled in the option that best suits their needs.

Emotional distress from the global pandemic, personal health concerns, financial worries, and isolation can cause depression and anxiety for people. These issues also have long-term health effects, take a toll on loved ones, and can have negative impacts on workplace communities and productivity.

In addition to mental and physical symptoms, stress can also cause difficultly in concentrating and make it hard to make decisions—manifestations with direct impacts on workplace productivity. The World Health Organization estimates that depression and anxiety in the workplace costs $1 trillion annually to the global economy.

Just because open enrollment questions start rolling in doesn’t mean that human resources departments get to put the rest of their workload on hold. From coordinating performance reviews to developing long-term strategies for employee retention, we know HR teams have plenty on their plate every day of the year.

Treating mental health can be a challenge in the best of times. But today’s challenging emotional landscape presents unprecedented challenges to employees and their families. Making mental health professionals easily accessible to your team has never been more important. Luckily, advances in telehealth technology are making it easier than ever for people to access mental health care from their computer or mobile device.

Mental healthcare goes digital

Mental health care has long been poised to go virtual, and now that it’s here, it’s likely to continue. Pre-pandemic clinical trials of teletherapy yielded comparable outcomes to in-person talk therapy. And early anecdotal evidence has shown that patients, comfortable in their own homes, are willing to open up in different ways, and that mental health professionals are able to garner new insights by observing their patients’ behaviors in a home environment.

Patients may also experience a feeling of increased personal agency, as they are able to choose video, audio or chat options, sit on the couch or a porch, or sip a coffee or tea during their session.

Teletherapy is not a suitable treatment for all patients, particularly those with paranoia or delusions. But for many it is a wonderful option, especially in an era of social distancing that makes one-on-one therapy sessions in an office more challenging.

Remote mental health options are also helping to bring quality mental healthcare to people who may not have had access to it, addressing an issue that predates the pandemic. Many rural areas simply do not have mental health professionals easily accessible. And even in urban centers it can be hard to find a provider who accepts insurance. Remote mental health offerings can help eliminate the barriers to mental healthcare that confront so many Americans.

Making it easier to access mental health care can also normalize the practice, helping to break down stigmas around the subject that prevent many from entering therapy in the first place.

With no end to the pandemic in sight, the mental health of employees and their families must become a priority for employers. And while we may have to wait for an effective COVID-19 vaccine, treatments for mental health issues are established, effective, and waiting for your team to access them. To learn more about how Accolade can support your team’s mental and physical health alike, contact us to schedule a demo today