COVID-19 Briefing: Our Region’s State of Mind

This virtual briefing explores the pandemic’s impact on the mental health of workers, families, patients, and healthcare providers in our region. Featuring:

  • Monica Schmude, President, Mid-Atlantic Market, Cigna
  • Dr. Steve Miller, Chief Clinical Officer, Cigna
  • Robin Kelleher, President & CEO, Hope For The Warriors
  • Dr. Marissa Leslie, System Chief of Psychiatry, Adventist HealthCare
  • Darcy Gruttadaro, Director, Center for Workplace Mental Health, American Psychiatric Association Foundation

Watch the recording

Read the summary

Mental health trends during COVID-19

Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic is taking a big toll on the mental health of most people. Dr. Steve Miller, Chief Clinical Officer at Cigna, opened the session by reviewing the data: Reported loneliness is impacting 75% of individuals, up from 50% before the pandemic. Most Americans are experiencing anxiety, depression, or problems sleeping, with Generation Z and Millenials hit the hardest. In the first 30 days of the crisis, even when the number of cases in the United States were low, prescriptions for drugs to treat these disorders were up significantly (between 35-15% depending on the drug). Alcohol and drug abuse are also increasing.

The pandemic has also been especially hard for front-line healthcare workers who are fighting to save lives every day. Dr. Marissa Leslie, System Chief of Psychiatry at Adventist HealthCare, described bravery and solidarity among front-line workers at Adventist but noted that they often feel a sense of responsibility for medical outcomes. This can cause moral injury in the face of the devastation caused by COVID-19.

How the healthcare sector is responding

The pandemic has given providers and patients incentive to try telehealth, the practice of virtual medical visits. Dr. Miller reported that satisfaction levels have been high with telehealth and that many are finding it to be valuable, accessible, and affordable. Telehealth is also allowing medical care practitioners to reach people who they typically had a difficult time reaching. This may be a lingering upside to the pandemic.

Dr. Leslie noted that she has observed her teenage clients respond especially well to virtual visits. She theorized that this is because they are more comfortable in their own rooms and feel more like they are initiating the visit when it is on their device rather than after being shuttled to a doctor’s office by their parent.

Mental health problems in the workplace and what employers can do

Darcy Gruttadaro, Director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, explained that interest in workplace mental health was already escalating before the pandemic due to mounting evidence that anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, and substance abuse all have serious impacts on company productivity.

She recommended a model for how companies can help their employees take care of their mental health, which follows the acronym LEAD:

  • Leadership: Top-ranking leaders must set the culture at the organization. They are encouraged to talk about their own feelings and anxieties in appropriate ways and to encourage staff to take care of themselves.
  • Effective communication: In times of uncertainty and stress, employers must provide a steady stream of clear information for employees to whatever extent possible.
  • Adapting to change: They say that the only constant in life is change, and that is certainly true now. Employers should help their employees adapt to changing circumstances.
  • Double down on services and support: The mental health system is difficult to navigate. Employers should make sure that their employees have access to mental health providers and other assistance through their health plans and employee resources.

The panelists were asked how employers can recognize if an employee is struggling. Darcy stressed the importance of recognizing changes in behavior. Though employers should expect to see some changes in staff behavior given the current circumstances, they should take notice if an employee exhibits behavior that is uncharacteristic for a prolonged period of time, such as a drop in performance, unexplained absences, and unusual isolation. This kind of change is a warning sign, and an opportunity to start a conversation. Employers should not try to diagnose the employee, but rather should demonstrate compassion and point the employee towards help.

Robin Kelleher, President and CEO of Hope For The Warriors also suggested that leaders make sure to have video calls with their employees regularly so that they can look for visual cues that their employees need extra help. She also recommended making time for virtual happy hours, birthday celebrations, and other social events to help increase engagement and a feeling of being connected.

What we can learn from the veteran community

Military service can be stressful and traumatic for our service members and their families. Robin spoke about what she and her organization have learned in working with the veteran community for many years. They have found that it may take six to 18 months for a traumatic event to manifest as a change in behavior. They have also learned that it is important to engage the whole family as they experience a stressful event together. Understanding the timelines and symptoms of behavioral health impacts after a stressful or traumatic episode is key for providing effective support.

Resources mentioned on this briefing call

America’s State of Mind Report (Express Scripts)

Loneliness in the Workplace Factsheet (Cigna)

Resilient Nation (Hope for the Warriors)

COVID-19 Tips from the Center for Workplace Mental Health (American Psychiatric Association Foundation)