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Now more than ever: unprecedented need for behavioral healthcare in the workforce

Employees meditating in front of laptopsOur nation’s workforces are hurting. Three years of stress caused and compounded by complications of a deadly pandemic have left many employees feeling overwhelmed, broken, lonely and lost. These stresses can affect their work performance and personal relationships. Unchecked, they can trigger serious problems like turning to substance use as a balm or causing mental health challenges ranging from anxiety and depression to suicide. Behavioral health clinicians are seeing more demand for behavioral health services than at any point in our lifetimes.

The term “behavioral health” encompasses two huge, stigma-laden struggles in America today: mental health and substance use. Neither topic is one people tend to be comfortable talking about openly, though research shows most Americans know someone struggling with mental illness or addiction, and at least 1 in 5 people experiences mental or substance use disorders each year.

Unprecedented

The World Health Organization attributes a 25% global spike in depression and anxiety to the pandemic. Meanwhile, U.S. overdose deaths have been at an all-time high. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, U.S. overdose deaths in 2021 surpassed 107,000, up from 74,000 in 2019. Arkansas Children’s Hospital in 2021 reported a 150% increase in mental health visits to their emergency department over pre-pandemic years. And almost 38% of adult Arkansans reported in 2021 that they were suffering from depression or anxiety. The demand is not expected to decrease significantly in 2023.

Access to behavioral health coverage is systemically lacking throughout the country; it’s no secret that for years, Americans’ need has far outstripped supply. That’s especially true in rural America, where there often are no behavioral health providers within an easy drive. That’s why one of our first initiatives was to look at ways to increase access within Arkansas.

Interconnectedness

Physical and behavioral health are inextricably linked. Behavioral health, in fact, drives total health; it’s a necessary foundation for healthy living. When one bodily system is suffering, others are more easily compromised. The CDC says mental health patients are at higher risk of developing serious illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Similarly, people with chronic disease are at higher risk of developing mental or drug use disorders. People with chronic pain can become addicted to painkillers, people with alcoholism may suffer from severe anxiety and people who are in a clinical depression so deep they can’t get out of bed are likely not seeking preventive care and making healthy choices. Likewise, people addicted to controlled substances have their bodies physically ravaged by addiction.

Untreated behavioral health needs bleed into the social realm, wreaking destruction on patients’ personal and professional lives. Employees struggling with substance use disorders or mental health often have reduced job performance—their productivity, creativity and morale all take hits.

And more than most other conditions, mental illness and substance abuse affect far more people than just the primary patient. They can hurt everyone in their wake. The flip side is treating mental disorders and addiction can stabilize employees and their families in immediate and lasting ways.

It all ties together.

Too big to ignore

The good news is that the current burden of unprecedented demand brings a rare opportunity, because it’s gotten too big to ignore. It’s affecting too many families, too many employers. Now that more people understand the urgency for expanded behavioral health services, we’re seeing promising new conversations starting to happen in that space. People are discussing, “How do we fix this?” And these conversations in boardrooms and other forums could lead to more resources to meet the behavioral health needs of our workforces.

For instance, as of 2022, Americans can now reach the National Suicide Hotline anytime by just dialing 988. The hotline volunteers listen to people in crisis, talk with them and connect them to resources and local help.

At Arkansas Blue Cross, we are focused on solutions to the crisis. We place high priority on increasing access to affordable behavioral health services. Enabling this care is a major, ongoing initiative for our organization. It’s why our plans include virtual behavioral health services, so even our remote members or those who have logistic difficulties can access the care they need.

Likewise, in our home state we support and promote UAMS’ AR ConnectNow, a 24/7 helpline for Arkansans struggling with substance use or their mental health. This is a free resource available to all Arkansans. No insurance is required, and the patient can receive up to six hours of telehealth counseling sessions, plus referrals to other services for ongoing care. Another way we support behavioral health care is by co-sponsoring with the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care, Together Arkansas Opioid Response Initiative, a free toolkit employers can use to help them prepare for, prevent and respond to opioid-use disorder among your workforces. Although personal conversations about mental health, alcohol or drug use can be hard, we must normalize open conversation about them.

Whole-person focus

In developing solutions to the chronic problems of access and affordability, we must also focus on the quality of the care and the patient experience. To treat people effectively, we need to shift from silos of care to prioritizing “whole-person care,” a treatment model that factors in the links between mental, social and physical health and seeks to integrate care holistically across disciplines. Such collaborative care can improve the patient’s health, increase communication among providers and reduce conflicting treatments and prescriptions.

We also need to create options like behavioral telehealth that are accessible and affordable even in remote rural areas, keeping behavioral health patients’ logistic barriers in mind. Healthcare systems and tools can be famously difficult for anyone to navigate. Already operating at a functional deficit, behavioral health patients require tools that are clear and simple to use, and that quickly help them find the information they are.

Get invested in the dream

One of the first ways to improve our state’s behavioral health shortcomings is to improve the benefits offered to working Arkansans. We recommend this to employers not simply for the sake of your employees and their families, but to strengthen your workforce and improve their job performance. By taking good care of your employees and their families, you build loyalty while getting them the help they need before health concerns become too severe. And when their health and focus are not drained by the challenges of theirs or their family’s behavioral health, your employees are much better equipped to take good care of your customers.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to live somewhere that had ample resources for people struggling with behavioral health? Where getting effective treatment for a family member’s manic episodes or their dependence on controlled substances didn’t feel insurmountable? Solving these issues would create a healthier nation. Our state’s citizens, community, workforce, society, economy and quality of life could flourish with adequate resources and support structures for people needing behavioral healthcare.

That’s our dream and our goal. We are not going to get there this year, or next. But if we together prioritize behavioral health access, affordability, quality and experience now when the need is so high, we can start filling a great need. Together, we can be champions for behavioral health services in our communities and for the people they serve.

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We’re here to help! Existing customers should call or email their Arkansas Blue Cross account representative or independent broker. Group administrators, business decision-makers and agent-brokers who do not have a point of contact can fill out the form and we’ll be in touch.

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