The COVID-19 pandemic has put tremendous stress on the healthcare system. Naturally, health professionals and health plans have focused heavily on treating the physical effects of the virus. Healthcare experts have quickly realized, however, that the impact of COVID-19 goes far beyond those individuals who have contracted the virus. Many people are experiencing behavioral health issues that are pandemic-related.
Who’s at Risk?
COVID-19 has introduced a host of different stresses into daily life. People may be concerned about their own health or that of their family members. The economic impact of the pandemic has also generated anxiety about employment and financial security. According to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, over half of respondents (56%) felt that COVID-19 has had a negative impact on their mental health.
Individuals with existing mental health diagnoses may find that their condition has worsened due to COVID-19-related stresses. Research suggests that natural disasters cause surges in depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse. The Executive Director of the Georgia Prevention Project worries that the pandemic will erase any progress that has been made in the battle against opioid drugs. All of the emotions and stresses caused by COVID-19 can serve as triggers for behavioral health conditions.
Even people who have never experienced mental health issues in the past are now concerned about their well-being. Data gathered by the Census Bureau found that one third of Americans feel severe anxiety and close to one quarter are feeling depressed. Sheltering at home and other pandemic-related measures are taking a toll. For example, a recent poll revealed that over one quarter of parents believe their mental health has suffered since March 2020 and around 14% feel that their children’s behavioral problems have worsened.
Other populations at risk for behavioral health problems include older adults who are socially isolated, caregivers, frontline and essential workers, individuals with disabilities, and racial and ethnic minorities. Simply consuming news about the pandemic can create a cycle of negativity that generates anxiety. The media has even coined a term for continual COVID-19 news monitoring on smartphones and mobile devices – “doomscrolling.”
How Can Health Plans and Health Systems Respond?
Even if health plans and health systems aren’t seeing large numbers of individuals with behavioral health issues today, the surge is likely to come in the next few months. Psychological effects from disasters can take time to develop. A team approach to behavioral health, where health plans, behavioral health specialists, and primary care physicians collaborate is more important than ever.
A team-based strategy can help allocate scarce behavioral health resources, since the United States currently is experiencing a shortage of behavioral health providers. During a crisis like the current pandemic, experts recommend using a “stepped care” approach. This delivers the most effective, least resource-intensive treatment to individuals and then steps up to more resource-intensive options over time. For example, a good first step might be to arrange a telehealth visit for a member with a therapist or counselor.
Organizations should also leverage their care management platforms as they respond to individuals with COVID-19-related mental health conditions. Assessments are a great way to identify potential new cases and also to determine how already diagnosed members are faring. Health plans and systems may want to inquire about changes in sleeping or eating patterns, difficulty concentrating, worsening of existing chronic health or mental health conditions, and increased use of tobacco or alcohol.
As care managers conduct screenings, they may focus on the “five core elements of intervention:” calming, self-efficacy, connectedness, hope, and a sense of safety. Connecting members with telemedicine services, then following up and tracking care are also crucial activities.
As we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, leading health plans and systems are recognizing that a holistic approach to member well-being is essential. This means focusing on behavioral health to the same degree as physical health. Care management can play a central role.
To learn more about the challenges and opportunities that the pandemic has created for health plans, download our white paper— The New World of COVID-19: It’s Time to Reevaluate Your Care Management Strategy.