Millennials, Gen Z’ers Most in Need of Mental Health Services, Experts Say

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL ( – May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it appears it couldn’t come at a better time. With incidents of depression, anxiety, and other conditions on the rise, experts say organizations seeking to attract and retain talent post-pandemic should look at their workplace populations, recognize their mental health needs and ensure they can address them.

“This is the first time in my career I’m seeing huge numbers of people requesting mental health services virtually for the first time in their lives,” said Desreen N. Dudley, Senior Behavioral Health Quality consultant at Teladoc Health. “That says something about how this trauma has affected all of us.”

Speaking on a panel about mental health awareness, Dudley and others discussed the increased prevalence of mental health issues, how they are affecting companies, and ways employers can respond to the situation.

“Many of the complaints I hear are from workers. They have struggles with concentration, not being able to do their work tasks. It’s pretty telling,” Dudley said. “What it says to me in terms of what I’ve been seeing and treating is that mental health concerns is not just an individual problem, it’s undoubtedly impacted work forces too; and workplaces see the impact with absenteeism, people calling out sick, requesting leaves, requesting short term disability, and, unfortunately, termination — whether voluntary or involuntary from their position, which overall decreases the morale of the workforces.”

“Mental health has gone from a ‘they’ problem to a ‘we’ problem through the pandemic,” added Ken Duckworth, MD, chief medical officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “The approach in the workplace has been a silver lining. Many organizations have made the decision they are going to attend to the mental health needs of their workforce. This has been a game changing experience – attending to their staffs; mental health concerns is important and fundamental to their to their business.”

The Trends

A June 2020 survey of adults conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed:

  • 41% are struggling with mental health or substance abuse
  • 13% started or increased substance abuse
  • 31% report anxiety/depression symptoms
  • 26% reported trauma/stressor-related disorder symptoms
  • 11% seriously considered suicide, including 25.5% of adults 18 – 25

“These numbers are all substantially higher than pre-pandemic,” Duckworth said. “Typically, at the National Alliance of Mental Illness we say one in five [suffer from mental health issues]; but for this period of time in the pandemic we’re looking at two in five.”

The most common symptom has been clinically significant anxiety. As opposed to just feeling anxious, it actually disrupts functionality.

The survey also points to younger adults as being particularly affected with mental health concerns. It’s not too surprising, considering where they are in their developmental stages.

“For people in a developmental stage where they already have their families and their careers and are working on Zoom it might not be easy to be isolated. But 20-year-olds are having their lives disrupted in fundamental ways and the developmental tasks of young people is to search in the world for an identity; ‘Am I lovable? What is my place in this world?’ Being in mom’s basement is not really consistent with any of those developmental tasks,” Duckworth said. “Do I miss my pals? You bet I do… but that’s not the same as experiencing a fundamental developmental assault on the tasks of life.”

The fact that millennials and Gen Zers — those born between 1981 and 2015 — are more open about discussing their own mental health struggles is great news, the speakers said. But it should also serve as a wake-up call for employers about their future workforce.

An upcoming survey of CEOs, HR professionals and others showed 87 percent of millennials and 82 percent of Gen Z’ers think employers should do more to promote mental health. Overall, 90 percent of the respondents believe it’s important for employers to offer coverage for mental health services during annual enrollment. “Only 29 percent of the HR professionals said their companies provide access to online mental health services or clinics,” said Marcy Klipfel, chief Engagement officer for Businessolver, which conducts an annual State of Empathy survey. “There’s an opportunity there, to make an increase in that statistic.”

Employer Actions

Employee Assistance Programs are the main way employers say they support the mental health issues of their employees. The Businessolver survey showed 91 percent of respondents have them. Next on the list was telehealth, which 71 percent said they provide through their medical plans. Just under one-third said they have ‘robust plan-based mental health benefits,’ while some provide telehealth stand-alone employer-sponsored services, or cognitive behavior apps.

“As you strategize for 2022, weigh your mental health coverage options,” Duckworth said. “Investigate potential co-pay limitations, and consider value over price.”

Younger workers who are most interested and in need of mental health services are “not going away,” he said, “so take a careful look when selecting a health plan for mental health coverage.”

Important factors to consider are whether the plan has a strong network and whether they allow providers to join the network if they have an independent license.

“Do they have a closed network, which would be malpractice given the supply/demand mismatch,” Duckworth said. “Demand has exploded and supply is static. There are few delivery techniques like telehealth that improve supply efficiency but for the most part it takes eight months to make a mental health crisis and eight years to make a mental health social worker. So you have to think about the benefits and barriers they put in the way. Don’t just go for the cheapest healthcare plan.”

The shortage of mental health providers is one of the biggest problems in trying to help people with mental health concerns. The increased use of virtual care during the pandemic has certainly helped, though there are still challenges.

Employers are encouraged to think of creative ways to supply mental health services to their employees. One alternative to having licensed counseling available is triaging through collaborative care “which is a model where the primary care physician takes care of 5,000 patients and the psychiatrist coaches the primary care physician two days a week and doesn’t see any patients,” Duckworth said.

Employers can start their efforts to help their employees with mental health concerns by looking at the utilization of their EAPs, if they have one. “If it’s 1 percent take note of that,” Duckworth said. “Are there alternatives you can provide? Cognitive behavioral coaching? Apps and services?”

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