Laura Morton is director and producer of Anxious Nation, a documentary film about the teen anxiety epidemic, which premieres May 3. Michelle Baker is a board member of the Caregiver Action Network.
Today’s teens face unprecedented challenges and change — a mix of residual grief and trauma from the pandemic, school shootings, hate speech, economic worries and more. It’s no secret that our young people are experiencing a mental health crisis. A recent survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1 in 3 high school girls considered suicide in 2021. The same study found that over half of LGBTQ teens had experienced poor mental health, and youth in all racial and ethnic groups showed worsening levels of persistent sadness.
As heartbreaking as these statistics are, they only shed light on part of the problem. A segment of our population bears the weight of this mental health epidemic: parents, guardians and families.
Navigating mental healthcare for children takes a toll on parents and caregivers, emotionally and physically. In fact, depression in adults causes an estimated 200 million lost workdays each year, at the cost of $17 billion to $44 billion to employers, according to the CDC.
In recent years, parents cobbled together new routines to support children and keep them safe. Today, they are on the front lines helping struggling children: picking them up early from school when anxiety becomes too much, working nearby to monitor after-school moods and activities, coordinating therapy appointments and maintaining family social connections.
As the producer of Anxious Nation, a forthcoming documentary film devoted to the teen anxiety epidemic, and a board member of a family caregiving organization, we believe that much more must be done to support parents and caregivers. We have a unique window of opportunity to help, building on the progress started during the pandemic.
Just as employers rose to meet the public health challenge of COVID-19 by increasing access to vaccines and testing, and implementing practical worksite precautions such as social distancing, mask usage and handwashing, their help is needed as we face a mental health epidemic. Employers must create and implement mental health initiatives, starting by conducting trauma-informed workforce assessments with a focus on family caregivers. Working with psychologists and social workers to survey team members allows employees with mental health challenges to feel seen and heard. These insights can help employers develop policies for struggling employees — whether managing their own mental health issues or those of family members.
Employers should also keep in mind the expiration of the federal public health emergency in May, when key support provided during the pandemic will go away, having ripple effects on employees and their families. As these changes approach, it will be important for employers to consider the following:
- Access to telemedicine, including mental health therapy will soon be more limited. This is a real problem as families’ mental health needs grow amidst care disruptions and clinician shortages. As the waiver loosening restrictions for in-person requirements lapses, there will be access and treatment interruptions as many virtual platforms adjust. This comes during a time of troubling mental health workforce limitations, with 130 million Americans living in regions designated as having clinician shortages.
- The ending of the public health emergency limits benefits at a time of inflation and economic uncertainty. Healthcare costs and expenses for basic needs strain family finances. In addition to added mental healthcare costs, the disbanding of public health benefits, including free COVID-19 testing, vaccinations and treatments, add to the health cost burdens on families. Also, other public health emergency benefit lapses strain families even further. For example, food insecurity is rising as nearly 16 million families lose extra SNAP benefits nationwide.
- Workplace flexibility and remote working created routines and valuable family touch points for children dealing with mental health challenges. During the pandemic, as young people’s mental health issues grew, parents found workarounds to manage frequent absenteeism and sick days with their kids. They could check in on them after a tough day, making sure they were safe.
- Parents need help finding coaching, support and mental health resources. Parents are coping with children who are having difficulty sleeping, struggles with school refusal, concerns over separation, self-harm, signs of substance use disorder and eating disorders. Employers can help by bringing family experts into the workplace for webinars or offering educational resources to address specific needs. In addition, organizations can offer concise guides with links to company benefits and community referrals.
As employers navigate these challenging times, they have a role to play in the next monumental public health challenge. Organizations must lead with empathy and compassion, considering how changes in benefits, leave policies and office schedules impact working parents. Our young people, and those who worry about and care for them every day, deserve nothing less.