have a deep mental health slump

Employee assistance programs are usually pretty drab affairs. For a few decades now, employers have paid EAP providers to run phone lines their employees can call if they need support with personal problems. The idea is to provide some short-term support — a handful of counseling sessions, say — to help employees deal with minor problems before they get worse.

But this year, EAP finds itself facing a swelling wave of complex mental health problems brought on by people with nowhere else to go.

“We were never built to be a crisis line,” says Bertrand Stern-Gillet, who runs Health Assured, the largest EAP provider in the UK with more than 80,000 customers. But he says “high risk” calls have now become a daily occurrence, involving safety concerns about a child or adult who “may have taken a large amount of pills, or they may be standing on a bridge”. The company is hiring more employees and managers to cope with the increasing complexity and emotional intensity of work.

Andrew Kinder, head of mental health services at Optima Health, another EAP, ran an online seminar about bereavement for a client’s employees. He expected about 40 attendees, but 1,200 logged on. “People were really sharing a lot of experiences about what they’ve been through,” he says.

The use of antidepressants is also on the rise. In 2021/22, 8.3 million patients in England will receive at least one prescription item for antidepressant drugs, according to NHS figures – a 22 per cent increase on 2015/16.

what’s going on? On the positive side, people have become more comfortable discussing their mental health and seeking help. It’s an improvement on the past when “we didn’t have this need being talked about,” says Vicki Nash, head of policy at the mental health charity Mind.

But it is clear that this is not the whole story. The loneliness, anxiety, grief and financial problems caused by COVID-19 and related lockdowns have taken a toll on the mental health of people around the world.

In the first year of the pandemic, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25 percent, according to the World Health Organization. In the UK, young people are a particular concern: one in nine children aged 6 to 16 had a possible mental disorder in 2017; According to NHS figures, by 2021 it was up to one in six.

At the same time, mental health services in many countries have been disrupted by the pandemic and are struggling to keep up with the increase in demand. In the UK, waiting for treatment has become so common that Greater Manchester has created a service called “Waiting Well” to assist people while they wait. But the longer people have to wait, the worse their condition gets. Nash says people may be turned away because they do not qualify for treatment, “so they have to wait until they are dangerously ill”.

One study into the experience of people on a waiting list interviewed a woman who said: “I didn’t shower, I didn’t get out of my bed because I thought in my head, I thought maybe if I stayed in bed longer If I stay, someone will come and bite me and then I will seek help.

Health Assured’s Stern-Gillet says some GPs are telling patients to contact their EAP provider if they have access to one because they are “much more likely to get some sort of support quicker than through the NHS routes”. “.

On top of that, the UK is now in the grip of a severe inflation hit and a possible recession. Those who are most vulnerable to a sharp decline in living standards are those with low and insecure incomes. They are also more likely to have poor mental health – problems that often exacerbate each other.

A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted the striking link between antidepressant use and deprivation: in 2021/22, more than twice as many patients in the most deprived areas in England were prescribed antidepressant drugs.

Column chart of number of patients prescribed with antidepressants by IMD* showing antidepressants are most commonly prescribed in poor areas

The problem with employers leaning more heavily on providing mental health support during this time is that not everyone has access to such programs. People with low wages, insecure contracts or no work are less likely to have this type of safety net.

They will need as much help as the cash-strapped state can spare. Some interventions don’t have to be very costly, such as integrating talk therapy with debt advice. Other policies that would help are already on the table but need to be implemented, such as the government’s plan to make life in the rental sector less insecure.

Leaving people to fend for themselves will lead to more problems both for them and for the economy as a whole. Already, a growing share of people say they are too sick to work. Although people over the age of 50 are the biggest drivers of this trend, there has also been a worrying rise in inactive younger people. For them, the biggest causes of long-term illness are mental illness, phobias and neurological disorders, up 24 per cent from 2019.

Financial problems are difficult for people at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. How well or badly we handle this moment will have an impact long into the future.

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