April 06, 2021
By Ken Cahill, CEO and co-founder of SilverCloud Health
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light many pain points within the healthcare system which need to be addressed. One of those near the top of the list is our approach to mental health treatment.
Mental health symptoms for millions have been going unaddressed for years- the pandemic merely put them under the spotlight. Mental Health America (MHA) reports that, from January to September 2020, 315,000 people took the anxiety screen, a 93% increase over the 2019 total. Another 535,000 people took the depression screen, a 62% increase over 2019.
More widespread remote work and isolation have driven up demand for clinical-grade mental health treatment to help people deal with feelings of stress, depression, loneliness, grieving for lost loved ones, and anxiety.
But unfortunately, mental health has a massive supply-demand problem. In the U.S., there are only 30 psychologists per 100,000 people, and 10.5 psychiatrists per 100,000 people.
Unable to access a provider, people will go to extreme lengths to access care. A study published in 2020 in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine found that, from 2015-2019, mental health-related emergency department visits increased by 41% for adults, accounting for over 10% of ED visits by 15–64 year-olds.
All of this points to a glaringly obvious problem that’s not easy to fix: our approach to treating people with mental health challenges is currently too reactive, and not preventative.
When people first experience mental health symptoms, they often go online to look for answers, resources and support. But most of these consumer-grade, online resources and wellness apps aren’t adequate because the therapies aren’t based on clinically validated approaches. For too many people, the symptoms worsen, sometimes to a point where they become a danger to themselves or others and end up in the ER.
The solution involves scaling preventative behavioral health services to a much broader population—beyond what current traditional mental health care settings can provide—using digital technologies. Many stakeholders play a role – none more than health systems and providers, and employers.
How Health Systems Can Proactively Engage Patients
The biggest cracks in our mental health infrastructure are at what you might call the top of the funnel – at the point where people begin experiencing heightened mental health symptoms, and where effective treatment interventions can stop the progression of symptoms.
Health systems, given the way they engage with patient populations in need, have a unique opportunity to intervene and proactively guide patients to behavioral and mental health solutions. More serious mental health issues require face-to-face therapy, but everyday issues like stress and insomnia can be treated effectively with clinically validated, digital behavioral health solutions.
Digital mental health solutions can effectively scale care options to meet demand across diverse populations. This eliminates barriers to care such as stigmas and long waiting times to see a provider in person, while also reducing the burden on the healthcare system.
These digital technologies can also address gaps in mental health equity for underserved patient populations. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the negative mental health impact of COVID-19 has been disproportionately experienced among Black and Latinx patients, many of whom live in an area where there are mental health provider shortages.
Already experiencing a worsening physician shortage, the U.S. healthcare system has struggled with COVID-19 treatment on top of routine treatment and emergency patient interactions not related to the virus. Health systems can help address physician burnout by offering digital mental health services to their own staff.
How Employers Can Do Their Part
My company, SilverCloud Health, commissioned a survey through a third-party research firm to better understand 1,288 employed US adults’ perspectives on their mental health and well-being, attitudes toward current mental health benefits, and changes they are looking for in their mental health care delivery.
Sixty percent said they would be more likely to use their mental health-related benefit if they had the option to access it from their smartphone or other digital devices.
Thirty percent of employees have experienced an increased need for mental health treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic and 35% feel they aren’t receiving the mental health they need. While 33% of employees said they don’t have access to mental health benefits through their employer, the biggest drivers of demand for mental health services are tied to online, virtual services (78%), with less demand for access to in-person or peer group sessions (22%).
Women are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and are feeling the resulting stress. 61% of working mothers surveyed have children who are remote schooling, and 36% said they are not getting the mental health care they need. Tragically, many are leaving the workforce, erasing decades of progress.
As employers look to invest in their teams’ mental health, they should seriously consider measures that address the escalating mental health crisis at scale. Digital therapeutics are critical solution to add to their wellness programs and health benefits and will help bridge the mental healthcare gap they are experiencing today.
Stigmas around mental health disorders have started to improve – especially as more people experienced mental health symptoms during COVID-19. But the effects of stigma have not gone away and aren’t helped by our current challenges with providing timely, effective care to those who need it most.
By embracing digital technologies and providing more flexible, on-demand forms of care across the spectrum of mental health disorders, we can finally turn the corner on the other pandemic, and help people live healthier, happier lives.
Ken Cahill is the CEO and co-founder of SilverCloud Health. With offices in Boston, Dublin, and London, SilverCloud is the world’s leading digital mental health platform. It enables the delivery of clinically validated digital therapeutic programs that are proven to significantly improve mental health outcomes, increase access and scale while reducing costs of care delivery.
Prior to founding SilverCloud Health, Ken held senior positions in several multinationals including, Dell, HP, and Gateway. Ken received the 2018 MedTech Boston 40 under 40 award. He holds a BSc. in computing, and a diploma in new business and certificate in company direction from the Institute of Directions in London. Visit Ken on LinkedIn or Twitter at @SilverCloudH.