By now we’ve all seen the headlines about the youth mental health crisis. We’ve likely even seen the effects in our own families, whether from the ongoing impact of social isolation, or from anxiety, depression, and trauma induced or exacerbated by the spate of gun violence and racial violence in our communities.
While roots of the pediatric mental health crisis existed well before the pandemic, rates of clinical anxiety and depression among youth have doubled in the past two years. And suicide-related mortalities among children and adolescents are rising at an alarming rate. New legislation, from anti-LGBTQ+ laws to barriers to abortion access, continue to fuel this mental health crisis among teens and families.
It’s critical to act now to support children and families in the midst of the “hidden” pandemic that we’re experiencing: the youth mental health crisis. We must do so not only to help our kids become healthier and happier but also to maintain the health of corporate America.
If the kids are not alright, neither are working caregivers
What’s the correlation? During the pandemic, long-ignored conversations around mental well-being—and what companies do to support employee mental health—reached a tipping point. But as employers rushed to incorporate mental health resources like meditation apps and therapy reimbursements into perks and benefits offerings, working parents, caregivers, and their families were left behind. This is especially evident in data on women, particularly mothers, leaving the workforce entirely.
Women’s participation in the workforce is now at 57%, its lowest since 1988. It’s no coincidence that the “shecession” and the youth mental health crisis are happening concurrently: People are worried about their kids. More than one in five caregivers have voluntarily quit their jobs or plan to in order to better care for their children’s behavioral health needs, according to a survey conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of my company, Brightline.
The health of companies is inextricably tied to the health of families
Many working parents and caregivers lack support from their employers and health plan providers, which offer little or no access to care for themselves or their children. Nearly 80% of parents in Brightline’s survey reported spending time each day managing kids’ behavioral health, while more than half in a survey conducted by the organization On Our Sleeves admitted to missing work at least once a month due to their children’s mental health.
Families are asking for more support. Cigna found that almost one-third of working parents today feel overwhelmed by their child’s needs related to mental health, and that a majority feel they lack support from their employer to tend to their children’s needs. Brightline spoke with hundreds of families pre-pandemic, asking them to choose between hypothetical mental health benefits for themselves or their child and received similar responses—an overwhelming 75% opted for services for their child.
Despite this demand, many benefits covered in typical healthcare plans lack consideration for the problems that youth are experiencing. Kids aren’t just small adults—they require specific and differentiated behavioral health approaches (many diagnostic tools or therapies adults use are unreliable for children, whose brains are still in development) and accessibility of pediatric behavioral healthcare is an immense challenge.
Some 70% of U.S. counties lack a single pediatric psychiatrist, and the impact of this extreme shortage is only compounded by the growing need for these services. Other barriers—long waitlists, out-of-pocket expenses, and social stigmas—leave parents feeling hopeless and unable to access the care their children need.
There is hope and there are solutions
The silver lining in all this increased need is there’s also increased awareness of the vast gap in support for families. Insurers are noting the need for more specialized care models for pediatric mental health and are supporting innovative virtual care delivery to help families.
Virtual care models are proven to improve outcomes for common challenges among children and teens, such as depression, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and anxiety. As a result, more families can find the care they need, which might not have been accessible before due to distance, time restraints, or other barriers.
Virtual care is especially important to supplement regions that lack resources to support children’s behavioral health (including rural areas and those with higher concentrations of historically disadvantaged communities). Accessible and competent virtual care can be a lifeline for struggling LBGTQ+ young people in places with dangerous legislation, for families with children experiencing anxiety or depression whose closest qualified provider is two hours away, and more.
While there’s a positive momentum for virtual care model infrastructure—for example, policies for cross-state licensure and health plan providers recognizing virtual care in their reimbursement structure—more parents, caregivers, children, and teenagers would find desperately needed relief if this support were also expanded to pediatric behavioral healthcare.
We can’t afford to wait another day
The intersection between employee well-being, retention, and family benefits is clear.
For the sake of employee and business health and well-being, companies must prioritize not just their workers’ mental welfare but that of their families. That starts with flexible work schedules that accommodate caregivers and a company culture that makes it possible for employees to seek support.
But that’s just the beginning. Employers have the power to bring meaningful change to families by providing better coverage and access to therapy, coaching, and medications for their children.
There are costly risks to waiting too long to innovate. It’s time for employers to bake family-focused care into their benefits offerings and demand insurance companies do the same.
The future of work hinges on the health of families—in fact, it’s estimated that businesses lose up to $44 billion each year from absenteeism and productivity loss due to caregiving commitments. Continuing recognition for this issue among employers is what’s most important. Flexible work arrangements, family-first health plans, a stigma-free company culture, and other accommodations are needed to retain working parents and help them care for their families.
Youth and their families are in crisis, and this action cannot wait. Parents and caregivers need and deserve so much more than vision, dental, and sick days. The next iteration of employee benefits looks different than it did ten, or even two, years ago. Caregivers are leaving the workforce in droves. Now is the time for employers to do something about it.
Naomi Allen is cofounder and CEO of Brightline, which provides virtual behavioral healthcare for children, adolescents, and families.