Break the Cycle: Addressing Pandemic-Driven Mental Illness and Substance Use

By Workit Health

Editor's Note: At Welltok, we’ve curated a stellar ecosystem of Connect Partners that cover the full spectrum of health and wellbeing, from condition management to mental health and nutrition support. One of our partners, Workit Health, is a telemedicine company that focuses on affordable and sustainable addiction care. In this Workit Health guest blog post, you’ll get a glimpse of how they’re helping to eradicate the stigma around mental health and addiction — plus a call to action for employers to better support their populations.

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The past year and a half has been tumultuous for everyone—whether they were working on the front lines or adjusting to the new normal of working remotely. During this upheaval, we have seen a simultaneous rise in mental illness, drinking and substance use. In June 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that more than 40% of American adults were struggling with mental health or substance use.

Why do mental health conditions like depression and anxiety co-occur with substance use disorder so often?

One major contributing factor to co-occurrence is that many people who have a pre-existing mental health condition try to manage it by self-medicating. Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol may seem like an easy solution— it’s relatively inexpensive and readily available. As stress and isolation have sky-rocketed throughout the pandemic, self-medicating accounts for a large increase in drinking and substance use.

Unfortunately, the very substances people use to feel better can often exacerbate mental illness. Drugs and alcohol can also lead to depression, insomnia and anxiety in those who didn’t have a pre-existing mental illness. These substances can disrupt the natural reward system in the brain and affect neurochemistry, even long after the drinking or substance use stops. This creates a vicious cycle of drinking or using drugs to feel better which provides very short-term relief followed by the person feeling even worse, which leads to yet more substance use.

Many people dealing with mental health issues, alcohol use disorder, and substance use disorder have been deterred from seeking professional help by the stigma around these conditions. Some may not want to admit they need help, while others have difficulty accessing mental health care and recovery treatment. Many organizations add roadblocks by implicitly discouraging individuals from seeking treatment unless their condition is “bad enough.”

A Call to Action for Employers

This all might sound a bit grim—but there’s hope! Mental illnesses like anxiety and depression are treatable, and so is substance use disorder. Organizations can promote a culture of wellness around these conditions to help address the way these issues may have spread during the pandemic. Here are some ways to do so:

  • Reduce stigma around mental illness and substance use. Use compassionate and humanizing language about people who suffer from these conditions.
  • Validate experiences. If an employee admits that they’re dealing with mental health struggles or substance use disorder, resist the urge to downplay their situation. Validating someone’s experiences is often more valuable than kneejerk positivity.
  • Help employees find available resources and support. This can be as simple as sharing a relevant link or phone number with your members. Businesses with an EAP should make it easy to access and understand. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is also an excellent resource for finding outside assistance.
  • Normalize getting help. Did you know that fewer than half of Americans with mental illness get treatment for it? In your messaging, accept and encourage individuals who take steps to improve their wellness. It’s also helpful when leaders model healthy behaviors themselves.
  • Don’t stop encouraging precautions or reaching out just because of pandemic fatigue. After so many months spent dealing with the ways the virus has changed our world, many organizations have become less vigilant about health precautions and less active in outreach. Your employees’ mental and physical health still matters just as much as it did at the start of the pandemic.

It can be tempting to assume that if we don’t see an employee struggling, that they must be fine. This willful blindness can create a reactive organizational culture that inadvertently discourages employees from seeking help until they’re in complete crisis.

Instead, promote a more proactive culture of wellness with messaging that reduces stigma and encourages employees to get assistance for mental health and substance use.

Want to learn more about Welltok’s partnership with Workit Health and how you can offer this type of support to your people? Let's talk.

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