A Growing Crisis: Mental Health Consequences Of The Pandemic

posted by AHIP

on October 5, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has rocked our communities, the economy, and the health care industry. Fear, uncertainty, isolation, and other stressors are contributing to the growing impact on mental health in the U.S. In a CDC survey, 40% of adults reported struggling with mental health conditions or symptoms attributed at least in part to the pandemic. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey also found that 53% of adults reported that their mental health had been negatively impacted.

“The ‘mental health crisis’ has been building for a long time, and has been exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19,” said Kate Berry, Senior Vice President of Clinical Affairs at AHIP. “Components include the fragmented health care and siloed behavioral health systems, stigma, and workforce capacity limits.”

Problem of Loneliness Exacerbated

“People are not really concentrating on it, but it was a huge crisis going into this pandemic,” said Dr. Steve Miller, Chief Clinical Officer at Cigna, on The Next Big Thing in Health podcast. “You can only imagine how much worse it’s gotten.”

A study from Cigna and Express Scripts found an increase in the use of mental health medications to treat anxiety, depression, and sleeplessness since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. In America’s State of Mind, researchers found that prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications alone rose 34.1% from mid-February to mid-March, many of them new prescriptions. “It’s hitting people really hard,” Miller notes.

Health Insurance Providers Making Mental Health Care Accessible and Affordable

In addition to proactively eliminating patient cost sharing for COVID-19 diagnostic testing and treatment, health insurance providers also acted quickly to ensure patient access to the mental health care they need by, for example, reducing or eliminating cost sharing, and expanding telehealth and behavioral health services. “We want members to have peace of mind that they’re going to have the help that they need,” said Miller. “We’ve staffed up on virtual care and behavioral care.”

In response to this growing need for mental health services during a time of increased social isolation, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) temporarily expanded access to telehealth services for Medicare members, including mental health care. More recently, CMS moved to make some of these changes permanent to ensure that Medicare beneficiaries will continue to be able to access the care they need.

Since the expanded guidelines went into effect, about 460,000 Medicare beneficiaries have used telehealth to access mental health services.

Social Factors Amplify Pandemic Impact on Mental Health

The COVID-19 crisis has also exacerbated existing social disparities – often hitting the most vulnerable the hardest. Widespread job loss, unstable or unsafe living conditions, and barriers to accessing healthy foods and health care all take a toll on mental health. And that’s not all: “In addition to COVID-19, communities are dealing with the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against the police killings of people of color,” said Berry.

Yet the very scope of the challenge may present an opportunity. “The pandemic will have significant impact on social, health and economic aspects of our society,” said Berry. “Since everyone is emotionally affected, there may to some extent be less stigma in talking about behavioral health needs.”