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According to a survey from the Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of Americans showing symptoms of a mental health challenge in May of 2020 skyrocketed by almost 300% when compared to 2019. The number of people needing help grew from 11% in May of 2019 to 30% this year. 

Mental health is a lingering symptom of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director of the World Health Organization, “It is now crystal clear that mental health needs must be treated as a core element of our response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.” He also said, “A failure to take people’s emotional wellbeing seriously will lead to long-term social and economic costs to society.”

Based on these statistics and comments, it is clear that the mental health challenges construction employees and companies face are not almost over but are just beginning and that the negative impacts to businesses and society could be significant. 

The preferred solution would be thousands of additional mental health professionals to help employees. The challenge is, there was a shortage of mental health professionals even before the pandemic. As many as 60% of counties in the United States do not have access to a psychiatrist. Also, the number of new graduates entering the field is not nearly enough to keep up with the demand. 

Addressing this crisis will require contractors to embrace technology with all its benefits and drawbacks, finding ways to leverage the strengths while minimizing the weaknesses.

To be clear, the best way to help a person with a mental health challenge is to provide them with regularly scheduled in-person visits with a professional. But when that option is not available, technology can help fill the gaps. Technology does not replace in-person visits, but it can facilitate—and even increase—their effectiveness. Technology is also a possible substitute when in-person visits are not available, too expensive or not convenient.

So, to positively impact the mental health crisis, how can technology be leveraged to help employees?

Telehealth for Mental Health

Because of COVID-19, thousands of mental health professionals have switched to video meetings or video chat to replace office visits. It saves travel time for the patients and counselors can help people who normally would never make it to their office because of distance or time. Telehealth has the potential to improve access to care and increase overall use as evidenced by low cancelation rates during the pandemic. 

Text and Chat

Some of the newest technologies provide the option to text or chat with a counselor. This provides the ability to communicate 24/7 whenever the challenge occurs. If an employee is upset after a meeting with his boss, he can immediately text or chat with a professional who can review the situation and respond with ideas within minutes. This daily and even up to hourly communication provides immediate feedback on tough situations which can be more effective than waiting days or weeks to meet in person and re-hash the challenge that has already passed. It also provides the ongoing ability to coach, learn and adjust each day rather than once a week.

 Counselors can help more people while having more flexibility. A counselor can chat and text with multiple people during the hour, allowing them to help many more people than their in-person schedule. Usually text and chat services are less expensive for the patient as well. Since geography is not an issue, more counselors are available and the employee is more likely to get the help they need quickly and with less effort before their challenge develops into a crisis.

Assessment - “Do I really need a counselor?” 

Another benefit of technology is the ability to complete an assessment confidentially and anonymously. In the current model, an employee must physically visit a primary care physician or a mental health counselor to find out if they need professional help. 

With technology, they can self-assess and monitor progress themselves. Most people are very reluctant to move from “I am normal” to “I am depressed” or “I suffer from anxiety.” As a result, they wait rather than visit a doctor and ask for an official assessment. According to the National Association for Mental Illness, the average time between the first symptom and diagnosis for a Mental Health challenge is 11 years. That is too long to wait and there is a lot of help that can be provided if the employee has a confidential way to get started today on their mental healthcare pathway. Providing technology can also be used to help employees check their mood on a regular basis so they can take action before things start to spiral for them. 

Build Skills

Technology can be used to help employees build resilience skills that will help them be better prepared to cope with the challenging times that will occur in the future. There are hundreds of skills people can learn that will help them be happier and mentally stronger. Think of it as preventative care for brain health. People can brush their teeth to prevent cavities. Likewise, people can regularly exercise their brains to prevent a future crisis.

Practice Between Visits

Most people see a counselor for 50 minutes once a week and for many once every two to three weeks. In most sessions they are given some coping technique or self-care skill to practice and report back on. Technology can support those in-between times by providing reminders and reporting mechanisms, so the patients can practice the counselor recommended exercises. 

Access to Resources

One of the most important uses of technology is quick access to resources that can help. Being able to connect to an Employee Assistance Program provider, suicide prevention hotline, insurance carrier mental or behavioral health benefits, or other programs and resources quickly and easily, could be the difference between a challenge that gets handled and a challenge that spirals into a crisis. 

Coverage for 100% of the Population

Each year, less than 10%, and for many companies less than 3%, of their population connects face to face with a mental health professional to get the help they need. Almost always, those who connect have already been through at least one crisis and have been diagnosed with depression, anxiety or a related challenge. Technology can help reach out to 100% of the population before the crisis occurs. Helping everyone learn how to improve their brain health now will help prevent future crises.

Technology is not as effective as in-person visits for treating mental health challenges. But given the shortage of counselors and the spike in demand, it is time to embrace technology to fill the gaps and add value.

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