Flattening the curve. It’s something that few of us were familiar with this time last year. Now, this concept of taking collective action to reduce the number of people impacted by a public health threat and the rate of infection is seared into our vocabulary. Thinking more broadly about it, I believe that the growing behavioral health crisis is the next curve we must flatten. And by behavioral health, I’m referring to emotional, social and psychological well-being and the treatment of mental and substance use disorders. 

The behavioral health crisis is a pandemic too   

Behavioral health disorders are the leading cause of disease burden and disability in this country—ahead of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions.1  For many of us, the crisis hits close to home. As pervasive as this “silent pandemic” is, the fear, uncertainty and isolation associated with COVID-19 is making things worse. Common sense confirms it, and so does the data. In June, 37% of US adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders, up from 11% last year.2

One-size-fits-all won’t solve the problem 

I’m old enough to remember when people struggled with mental health and substance use disorders in the shadows. While we’ve come far as a society in bringing these issues into the light, the reality is that behavioral health impacts different populations differently. Attitudes vary. Demand varies. Access to care varies. In fact, access is a major barrier for many people.3 Disparities among communities of color, the LGBTQ community, people living in rural areas and other underserved groups are well documented.4

There’s an important message in this diversity of experience. To truly flatten the curve on the behavioral health crisis, we must improve access and engage populations based on their unique needs, behaviors and preferred channels of engagement. This is our challenge, and we must be in this together to overcome this challenge. But here’s the million-dollar question: How do we do this?  

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To truly flatten the curve on the behavioral health crisis, we must improve access and engage populations based on their unique needs, behaviors and preferred channels of engagement.

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Virtual approaches have a real impact  

The “how” here is not easy. It never is. But I believe that virtual behavioral health services are a fundamental part of the solution. The healthcare ecosystem can use virtual models to serve different people on their own terms. And people are open to the possibilities. We found that a full 81% of those diagnosed with or experiencing a behavioral health condition definitely or probably would choose a virtual channel for treatment.5

This engagement isn’t so surprising given today’s climate. As I explored in my last blog, the pandemic has been a catalyst for broader adoption of virtual health.6 Behavioral health is no exception. What’s surprising is the nuance around different groups’ needs and attitudes toward virtual health services. How willing are they to try them? What factors matter the most in choosing treatment options? Here’s some of what we learned in our latest research.  

  • Employees: Interest is high, trust is key. The workplace is on the frontlines of the behavioral health crisis. The cost of reduced productivity, absenteeism and coverage is staggering. Just think: It’s estimated that depression causes more than 200 million lost workdays each year at a cost of $17 billion7. At the same time, employees expect behavioral health benefits. With this strong impact, more executives like CVS Health’s Karen Lynch are speaking out about addressing mental health issues at work.8 Here’s what leaders should know: while employees, particularly younger ones, have a high level of engagement in virtual behavioral health services, trust is a critical factor. Our research shows that 17% say that being offered these services through their employer would negatively influence their use of them. So in addition to developing strong privacy protections for those seeking care, employers must take a thoughtful approach to not just how services are offered, but to how they are branded.
  • Communities of Color: Interest is high, access is essential. Health inequities around COVID-19 incidence and mortality rates combined with a period of social unrest have escalated mental health struggles, which is compounding inequities in treatment. Nearly half of white adults with behavioral health conditions received treatment in 2015 while just 31% of African-American and Hispanic adults struggling with these issues received services that year.9 As employers, payers and providers ommit to more accessible and inclusive behavioral health services, they should look to virtual models. An overwhelming number of African Americans (92%) and Hispanics (93%) would try at least one virtual channel, respondents told us. Among these groups, Gen Z and Millennials are the most likely to choose virtual options.
  • Adolescents: The will exists, opportunity does not. Behavioral health challenges in adolescents can be the start of a lifetime of struggle. These conditions often emerge during adolescence and magnify during adulthood. Half of all lifetime mental health conditions start by age 14.10 Even so, adolescent substance abuse and mental health problems often go undetected and untreated because of systemic challenges including workforce shortages and poor access to service as well as social isolation among teens. This is especially exacerbated by the quarantine. Knowing how important this issue is for teens (13-17), we made it a point to include them in our behavioral health survey for the first time. In our data, we noticed a significant increase in the number of self-reported behavioral health conditions in Gen Zers (18-24) and Millennials (25-39) compared to teens, which suggests the importance of early intervention. While adolescents are open to virtual channels for addressing these challenges, few have participated in them so ar.  For example, a whopping 69% of teens would do a web chat with a behavioral health specialist, but only 4% have actually done so.

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Finally, a powerful convergence  

Over the last several months, I’ve looked for silver linings where I can find them. The widespread recognition around the need to address the country’s behavioral health crisis is one of them. This awareness—coupled with the tremendous potential of virtual health channels—is a powerful convergence. It’s a marriage of intent and technology that represents both the will and the way that we can come together to flatten this curve.  

Read more about the latent demand for virtual behavioral health services among US consumers suffering from these disorders—and how the industry can break down barriers to care. 

1Rabah Kamal, Cynthia Cox, MPH, David Rousseau, MPH et al, “Costs and Outcomes of Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders in the US,” August 1, 2107, JAMA, at https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/264670

2KFF, “Mental Health and Substance Use State Fact Sheets,” July 10, 2020 at https://www.kff.org/statedata/mental-health-and-substance-use-state-fact-sheets/

3Accenture, “Breakthrough Behavioral Health Access,” at https://www.accenture.com/us-en/insights/health/breakthrough-behavioral-health-access

4American Hospital Association, “Increasing Access to Behavioral Health Care Advances Value for Patients, Providers and Communities,” May 2019 at https://www.aha.org/system/files/media/file/2019/05/aha-trendwatch-behavioral-health-2019.pdf

5Accenture, “Breakthrough Behavioral Health Access,” at https://www.accenture.com/us-en/insights/health/breakthrough-behavioral-health-access

6Accenture, “Health’s NewFUTURE: Virtual Health Reaches the Point of No Return – But is the Healthcare Ecosystem Ready to Sustain it?,” at https://www.accenture.com/us-en/blogs/insight-driven-health/healths-newfuture

7Hertz RP, Baker CL. The impact of mental disorders on work. Pfizer Outcomes Research. Publication No P0002981. Pfizer; 2002.

8Lance Lambert, “ ‘Time Now to Address This Crisis’: Why CEOs Must Make Mental Health a Priority During the Pandemic,” July 7, 2020 at https://fortune.com/2020/07/07/covid-19-coronavirus-mental-health-crisis-ceos/

9American Hospital Association, “Increasing Access to Behavioral Health Care Advances Value for Patients, Providers and Communities,” May 2019 at https://www.aha.org/system/files/media/file/2019/05/aha-trendwatch-behavioral-health-2019.pdf

10Mental Health America, “Position Statement 41: Early Identification of Mental Health Issues in Young People,” at https://www.mhanational.org/issues/position-statement-41-early-identification-mental-health-issues-young-people

Rich Birhanzel

Senior Managing Director – Consulting, Global Health Lead

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