Editor’s Note: Karen S. Lynch is the president and CEO of CVS Health. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Even though mental health challenges aren’t anything new, we are living in a time with a series of unique stressors that are impacting every one of us, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as a pandemic that has stretched two-and-a-half years and continually reminds us that as much as we want to be done with it, we’re still living with a public health emergency that none of us has experienced in our lifetimes. It’s no wonder that people are reporting “alarming” levels of stress, according to the American Psychological Association.
Mental health challenges can truly impact anyone. I understand this on a personal level — my mother wasn’t able to get the help that she needed to address her struggles, and it tragically led to her taking her own life. Because of her experiences, I’m driven and committed to helping increase access to mental health services for everyone.
Mental health has been the collateral damage of the pandemic, but the uncertainty and social isolation of this time has at least raised awareness and increased our willingness to openly discuss things like depression, loneliness and burnout. A once hidden, private and even shameful topic, our mental health and the steps we take to preserve it has become a much more regular part of our daily lives, discourse and decisions.
But, even as we’ve learned to seek treatment for mental health challenges more readily, it’s clear that our needs are outpacing the growth of quality care solutions. Suicide is a leading cause of death in the US among children and adults, with nearly 46,000 people dying by suicide in 2020.
Both the public and private sector have been taking steps to address this issue, with the federal government establishing the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, for instance. And CVS Health has committed to a goal of reducing suicide attempts by 20% among Aetna members by 2025 through a number of different approaches, including direct outreach to the families of high-risk youth, as well as partnering with outpatient programs uniquely focused on suicide prevention and risk reduction.
While these are steps in the right direction, we also need to shift how we think about mental health — away from crises and toward mental well-being.
Business leaders have a tremendous role to play here. They have an opportunity to not only do the right thing for their employees, but also serve as a catalyst for change in how mental health is recognized as an everyday health issue. Here are several ways that they can help move our collective mindset in that direction:
Be transparent and open
As one of the country’s largest employers, we offer a number of resources to our colleagues to support their mental health at all stages. Our Resources for Living program is available to all of our employees and their families and provides varying levels of support for mental health, including stress reduction and help with crisis situations. But the quality of the resources only matters if we’re leading by example, talking about mental health issues directly with our employees and making sure they feel comfortable using the resources available to them.
Business leaders should be comfortable talking openly with their employees about their own mental health, whether during a large team meeting or a one-on-one conversation. By taking that first step, they can demonstrate the importance of speaking openly about mental health and give employees the support needed to open up about their own experiences.
Increase access to mental health care
Before the pandemic, CVS Health had about 20,000 virtual mental health visits. In 2020 and 2021, we had 20 million. We need to continue to break down barriers so people can easily locate the right resources to get the care they need, whether that is virtual or in-person. This can also help reach populations, such as young adults, that might be more comfortable talking about these types of issues in a virtual setting.
Of course not every company is in the health care industry, but every company will be impacted by health care and mental health in some way. The programs that we provide to our employees are available to anyone, but companies can also consider offering trainings like Mental Health First Aid or Talk Saves Lives, a program developed by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention that provides research on risks and prevention.
Encourage peer support
Your employees can be your greatest advocate in this area. In addition to offering colleague support groups that are facilitated by clinicians, we publish a quarterly mental well-being resource guide for our leaders and managers. Each issue of this guide covers a specific topic — such as addressing burnout with resilience or suicide prevention — and includes relevant articles, tools and tips to help leaders better understand the topic. We also recently introduced a program through Thrive Global to support employees’ physical, mental and emotional well-being. The Thrive platform will enable our colleagues to manage stress, improve focus, strengthen connections with others and support their overall well-being.
Another key approach to encouraging peer support is to provide a forum where employees can connect on shared experiences. We’ve set up a program to allow employees to voluntarily share inspiring stories on our company intranet site about how they’ve overcome their personal mental health challenges. These stories always generate an overwhelmingly positive response from across the organization.
This is the time for us to start building on the mental health awareness that the pandemic brought with it, and to make the most of our hard-won lessons. We need to take those everyday conversations about well-being and turn them into real action.