There is a pained irony in the connection between the preventative measures necessary to prevent the coronavirus, and the negative effects they can have on mental health. Physical distancing and social isolation can lead to heightened stress levels and other mental health conditions, which, when left untreated, can lead to suicide.
Taking place nearly six months into the pandemic, September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. The timing presents an important opportunity for businesses to reassess their role in supporting mental health.
In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between April and June of this year, symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders increased significantly compared to the same time period last year. According to a CDC survey conducted in late-June, 11% of people reported having “seriously considered suicide,” with a significantly higher percentage among younger adults and racial and ethnic minorities.
Given that the suicide rate in the U.S. is already higher than it’s been since World War II, suicide is an issue that is not going away. Research suggests that the aftereffects of the pandemic may ripple across the future for years to come.
Full disclosure—I have a special interest in this subject. My mother died by suicide when I was 12 years old. And today, I help lead an organization with almost 300,000 employees. So, I feel a special responsibility to do what I can to ensure that businesses recognize the critical role they can play in helping people preserve and protect their mental health and well-being.
First, it’s important to create a culture—even if it’s primarily through virtual communication—that gives people permission to be vulnerable. No matter where you sit in an organization, we’re all human beings, and knowing we’re not alone in our feelings and experiences, and that there is no shame attached to them, can help us feel less isolated. In addition, being open and open-minded about these issues can help organizations develop supportive policies that benefit employees who live with mental health problems, as well as those who don’t.
Broader adoption of videoconferencing presents new opportunities to help your organization stay connected beyond meetings, by allowing for virtual check-ins and social events. Staying in regular touch with your teams can add some of the purpose and community people may lose as they continue to work from home. A Qualtrics study from this past spring noted that almost 40% of employees reported that not one person from their company, including managers, had asked if they were doing okay. Those employees were 38% more likely than others to admit that since the pandemic began their mental health had worsened.
Another way companies can ease the situation is by being as flexible as possible, especially if schools continue to postpone opening or partially open, to allow people to fulfill all their obligations, not just those to their employer. For my company, we’ve made an intentional decision to not schedule meetings at times when family commitments tend to be most common, such as in the mornings, lunchtime, and early evening.
Finally, make a special effort to ensure employees, whether at home, at the office, or out in the field, know what mental health resources are available to them. Almost 46% of respondents in the study by Qualtrics said their companies had not reminded employees of these resources.
These are only a few of the actions organizations can take to ensure their employees get the support they need. As a healthcare company, our responsibility goes beyond caring for our employees. Our members and customers also depend on us to provide them with the services, resources, and information they need to stay healthy, both physically and mentally. We take suicide prevention seriously, base our actions on the principle that suicide is preventable, and have challenged ourselves to develop programs and initiatives that will help reduce the risk of suicide.
Since 90% of people who die by suicide were diagnosable with a mental health condition, we are especially focused on ways to identify people at-risk as early as possible. We’re beginning to screen adults at select MinuteClinic locations within our stores for depression; if appropriate, we also connect them with services to meet their needs. We are collaborating with public health partners, as well, to develop a predictive model to identify those among our members who may be vulnerable. Furthermore, we are working with primary care physicians to screen patients for depression during annual physicals and have waived the cost to patients when their primary care physician consults with a mental health specialist on their behalf.
As a business, we’re embracing these and other efforts to prevent suicide across the population, and not because of the increased risk among people during the pandemic alone. Currently, the risk for suicide may be exacerbated, but suicide transcends our current circumstances. It’s not one month a year, it’s every month all year.
Ultimately, I want to transform the conversation around suicide from one about death to one about life, and how we can work together in ways that give people hope for better days ahead. The social isolation so many people may be feeling today that can lead to suicidal thoughts does not have to be permanent. We can change that trajectory. And when we do, we’ll save lives.
Karen S. Lynch is the executive vice president of CVS Health and president of Aetna Business Unit.