Why is Covid-19 exacerbating mental health?


The Covid-19 pandemic is deeply connected with mental health. As the WHO says, “Fear, worry, and stress are normal responses to perceived or real threats”, and this is a time in which many are dealing with high levels of uncertainty about the future. In a July poll, 53% of US adults said their mental health had been negatively affected by the pandemic, an increase of 21% since March.

In this blog, I will explore the intersection between Covid-19 and mental health. I then investigate some of the potential opportunities for insurers, healthcare providers and businesses interested in the topic to address this complex challenge. I also assembled a shortlist of some of the most impressive companies already taking action to remedy the impact of the pandemic’s mental health issues.  

The mental health stigma before Covid-19 — the underlying problem

Unfortunately, in many cultures, mental health remains a taboo topic. This state of affairs frequently prevents sufferers from seeking or accessing the assistance and treatment that patients with comparatively serious physical conditions are given. The stigma around mental health can lead to a destructive cycle in which mental illness is aggravated by feelings of shame and isolation.

The stigma surrounding the subject has led to a lack of focus on the mental health repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, making it harder to address them.

It’s vital to remember that mental health is every bit as important as physical health. In 2018, it was estimated that, worldwide, 4.4% of adults suffer from depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately one in five adults in the US are currently living with a mental illness.

Home-working and disruption of vital services

Besides introducing new sources of anxiety and stress into our lives, the pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues in other ways — social-distancing measures have led to increased levels of isolation and it has become harder to access key services. A global survey conducted in June revealed that 67% of countries had experienced disruptions to counseling and psychotherapy services. Meanwhile, over a third of respondent countries reported disruptions to emergency intervention programs.

Whether in the US or the UK, patients with mental health conditions are heavily reliant on already overburdened mental healthcare infrastructure and services such as Medicare or the NHS. The Commonwealth Fund argues that the pandemic has exposed vital gaps in Medicare’s mental health coverage, not least an inpatient psychiatric stay lifetime limit of 190 days and limited mental health provider access in Medicare Advantage plans.

As I’ve shared before, having seen the benefits of remote working, many companies are considering transitioning to a long-term work-from-home setup and this requires a new adaptive type of leadership — almost three-quarters of CFOs interviewed in a recent study said they intended to have some of their employees go remote permanently.

However, even though technologies such as Zoom and rapid on-demand cloud storage have made it possible for companies to overcome the technological hurdles of remote working, few businesses have fully considered the consequences on their employee’s mental health as highlighted in this Raconteur Infographic.

source: Raconteur

In addition, despite the evidence that eliminating commutes and increased job flexibility can boost wellness, a recent TELUS International survey revealed that 45% of respondents felt less healthy working from home due to Covid-19, despite the deployment of mental health apps, left, right, and center.

Supporting employee and public mental health during Covid-19

One of the high-profile businesses making waves in their approach to employee mental health during the pandemic is EY. Employees of EY have been given access to free apps to help them build emotional resilience, get more sleep, and access daily group counseling sessions. My understanding is that the apps have been selected carefully to map against EY strategy, employee population, and identified stress and anxiety levels. Friends at other leading consultancies such as PwC also confirmed the practice is being implemented widely.  

Similarly, the FT is taking an innovative approach to wellbeing through regular “keep connected” dialogue sessions. Through these, the publication intends to replicate some of the interpersonal connections that have been inevitably impacted by social distancing rules.

Several private and public sector organizations are already working hard to lessen the broader mental health impact of the pandemic. One of the companies I find interesting is 7Chairs, an online support and counseling service. Professionally-led support groups are an important coping tool for people dealing with financial, health, and isolation pressures. As the feasibility of in-person support groups is being challenged by the need for social distancing, online equivalents are emerging to fill the gap.

Opportunities for improvement in supporting pandemic-related mental health 

Despite the groundbreaking efforts of a select group of organizations, a great deal more needs to be done to address the consequences of the pandemic on mental health. 100s of young ventures have decided to look at the topic, and I thank so many of them for reaching out to share their lens on the problem. 

Still, simply relying on technology to keep us connected, as the World Economic Forum points out, could be a flawed approach. 

Real-time video chats and messaging has, even amid extreme isolation, enabled us to stay more connected to one another on a deep and personal level. At the same time, emotional support experts provide invaluable leadership when it comes to designing truly beneficial targeted and guided programs and groups. Compared to the demands for such services, only a small number of professionally-led groups are actually available online.

Many significant actors in the mental health space are also only slowly recognizing the way that the pandemic is reshaping mental health pressures. For example, a large proportion of government mental health spending in the UK is currently funneled to awareness, anti-stigma, and human rights-based campaigns in alignment with the 17 UN SDGs. Although these are extremely important topics, the pandemic necessitates an approach that incorporates patient engagement, risk prevention, and innovative HealthTech thinking.

Overall, our analysis indicates that the pandemic requires organizations to design mental health programs that are more seamless from an engagement and experience viewpoint and integrate better into the new working-from-home culture we’re living in. This new normal is certainly here to stay.

In the short term, new requirements demand both social distancing-compatible services that cater to mental health patients with specific needs as well as more holistic programs that anticipate and address mental health trends before they emerge.

Mental health-focused private and public actors must stay mindful of emerging work trends if they want to develop truly impactful approaches to pandemic-led mental health issues. For example, research shows that 32% of organizations are currently planning to cut costs by replacing salaried employees with contingent workers. Months or years from now, when the mental health burden associated with social isolation is lifted, pandemic-driven trends like this one will likely continue to produce feelings of job insecurity and dissatisfaction.

The growth ventures addressing mental health amid the pandemic

Some of the slack left by traditional mental health players is being picked up by innovative startups, scaleups and grownups who have recognized the severity of the challenge and are doing what they can to rectify it. 

Mental health telemedicine is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the health markets that’s expanded rapidly since the arrival of Covid-19. Over 100s of mental health telemedicine startups have already received millions of dollars in funding to accelerate their work. Many of these low-touch businesses facilitate both online and offline patient care. 

Today’s leading venture in the mental health telemedicine space is US-based Mindstrong which provides an app for text-based cognitive behavioral therapy for people with mental illness. Smartphone-led, this digital platform also engages leading therapists and psychiatrists with structured messaging sessions to support each patient.  The venture raised $160 million. The latest raise was in May 2020.

As an employee-focused venture, Dialogue, is also a top 5 mental health venture whose purpose is to improve productivity, reduce absenteeism and build a happy culture. It provides a telemedicine platform for employees and patients to manage their mental health conditions through an online platform that helps them to virtually consult with their nurses and practitioners via video conferencing tools and help dispatch e-prescriptions and specialist doctor referrals. Dialogue raised a total of $88m with the latest raise in July 2020.

Services like these are attempting to adapt the health industry to the new status with solutions such as inclusive marketplaces, remote video consultations, and collaborative ecosystem services (which include on-Demand services, doctors, hospitals, and therapists in one single place) combined with live experts able to prescribe treatments and medical solutions.

An interesting venture which takes a more targeted approach to mental health is WellTrack. This Canadian startup service was designed specifically to support student mental health during the pandemic. Offering stress and mood-tracking, relaxation sessions, and regular assessments, WellTrack aims to help one of the demographics most exposed to pandemic uncertainty.

Another impressive pandemic-oriented mental health startup worth mentioning is Wysa which was accelerated by our Hartford InsurTech Hub acceleration earlier this year. Wysa is an AI-driven wellness app that helps users deal with stress, depression, and anxiety. Wysa’s app responds to users’ messages through automatically generated responses or connects, as highlighted above, users to a real personal therapist. The team raised nearly $4m and is progressing its proposition with great partnerships and well-known BigTech supporters! 

In a recent newsletter, Alessandro who leads our venture growth activities shared insight on ventures he met recently. In his recent snapshot, Alessandro addressed health and the remote worker and profiled SafetyWings, a digital nomad app focused on the primary interest of travel, which also provides remote healthcare plans including mental health, and can be taken despite being already in another remote location. The proposition is backed by Tokio Marine. On the microinsurance side, SosoCare is also intriguing as it provides a mobile health platform that uses recyclable waste as a means to provide affordable insurance and promote universal healthcare and business financing for remote workers.

Alex Devoto from LVLFi shared recently that:

It is about adding varied breathing techniques, guided meditation, calming videos and positive imagery to stimulate the brain. Some of these triggers may include a variety of comforting and well-curated pictures to trigger the happy hormones.

A complex challenge, but one worth solving 

When it comes to the nexus of mental health and Covid-19, it’s clear that focusing on the user is not only a requirement but a necessity — understanding the specific anxieties and stresses faced by different groups of individuals is an important way to optimize mental health services during these difficult times.

There are so many ways we could seek to address mental health. I think there is certainly an opportunity to align employee health strategy by deploying digital capabilities, particularly when aiming to attract a younger generation. Mental health today is a key issue and a requirement gradually emerging among ecosystems’ benefits.

With approximately 70% of mental health propositions still emerging, it’s clear that new solutions are still being shaped, refined, and positioned to better tackle the existing contradictions between costly face-to-face services and engaging online and personalized low-touch platform services.

My questions to you:

What challenges or opportunities have you encountered this year to develop relevant employee services to improve your healthcare benefits packages? 

I’d love to hear how your organization has pivoted to support mental health during Covid-19 for employees, employers, and/or the general public. 

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