5 key questions on digital mental health support

Helping employees with mental health issues can be more timely, accessible and cost effective with digital solutions

5 key questions on digital mental health support

Mental health support is increasingly on employers’ radar and technological developments have enhanced the ability to provide it to employees. Canadian HR Reporter spoke with psychologist Andrew Miki, chief science officer at Starling Minds, a Vancouver-based software company that offers a digital mental health therapy program, about delivering mental health benefits through digital means.

Q: Why should employers care about employees’ mental health?

A: “Employees are seen as vital to the success of the company and I think that employees’ health in general, whether it's physical and mental, is really important. If people aren't healthy, it's going to affect them in an adverse way. It’s hard to be an engaged, productive, actively involved colleague if you're suffering from mental illness.”

Employers have the power to support the message that having mental health problems is okay, says a mental health expert.

Q: Why is stress a concern for the workplace?

A: “Everybody's got stress in their lives — that's just accepted, right? The way that we look at it is that stress is good and we see it as a positive thing, just like work is a positive thing. Work provides people with a lot of structure in their lives, purpose, social connections, things like that. Stress is like working out a muscle — you need a certain amount of stress in order for your muscle to be strong and grow. If you don't have any, then your muscle atrophies and withers away. We need a certain amount of stress in order to keep working and be activated enough that we are in what we call the ‘zone.’ But if it's too much stress for too long, then it starts to have a negative impact. If that happens for an extended period of time, your battery gets drained and you're more prone to experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

“Those are probably the two conditions when it comes to mental illness that pretty much everybody will experience if the battery gets drained. Often we'll see that worry and stress will lead to people starting to feel more anxious and worrying about things a lot more, which is understandable. A lot of times people can get depressed and they can feel like they're not able to get back on track, they're feeling really hopeless. They just can't break out of a rut.”

Q: Why should employers offer digital mental health support to employees?

A: “I think that there's a variety of reasons. One of the trends that we see happening is that mental health care is increasingly moving to what's called a stepped-care model, which is where you have resources that are less expensive but highly deployable to a large group of people as the first line of defense. One of the reasons why employers should consider it is because it's much more cost effective than offering traditional forms of treatment to everybody.

“Another aspect is just in terms of how unregulated the mental health care system is. There are a lot of professionals in this space — psychotherapists, counsellors, psychologists, nurse practitioners, psychiatrists. I don't think that people generally know who does what and who has credentials in different areas. One of the things that digital programs do is help standardize the delivery of more evidence-based treatment.

Andrew Miki

“Some people are not necessarily comfortable going to see somebody. Accessing a digital program helps them dip their toe in. We've seen it where that's enough, people can go the whole distance with our program, they feel like they're back on their feet and they're good to go. But sometimes people who have really complex presentations — PTSD, depression, or anxiety — find resources within programs like ours to be helpful because it helps them better understand what's going on. If you can help coach people along and give them some confidence in the system in mental health care, and if they can go and find a professional who can then help them with their presentation, I think that that's still a win.”

Positive mental health support for employees allows them to maximize their potential, an expert says.

Q: What are some advantages of digital mental health support?

A: “You can overcome a lot of obstacles — geography being one. Pretty much almost the entire world is wired for internet, so that means that you can access it in remote areas. I think time is another one. If you think about the time that it takes to see someone like myself in private practice, it might take you anywhere from half an hour to an hour just to drive to the office, it's an hour session, and then another hour or half an hour back to wherever you're working or where you live. So it could be up to three hours or more sometimes. If you have to meet with people on a weekly basis, that's a huge commitment compared to being able to access an online program wherever you are in the comfort of your own home.”

Q: What is trending in employee mental health programs?

A: “Employees are saying that they want more mental health resources. The way that the mental health care system is set up, it's generally people with benefits or who are more affluent who can afford to see a psychologist one-on-one. It can be quite costly because it's generally a private service and it's out-of-pocket. So I think that there's a general trend where employees are starting to lean more on their employers to provide those services, because it's not provided by the national healthcare system.

“Another trend is that people are exploring different types of resources to solve their problems. I think one of the problems that's arisen from the pandemic is that it's introduced a layer of uncertainty and change along with potential physical harm to the individual where people can get really sick with COVID. The level of stress has gone up and we see more and more HR professionals looking for resources and solutions.

“What’s happening as well is that there's a lot more noise in the market now than ever before. One of the challenges that HR professionals have is, how do you identify quality resources versus ones that don't necessarily have that level of efficacy, engagement, or effectiveness? I think that's an increasing trend that's difficult for them to navigate right now.”

Most Canadians believe employers should offer virtual care benefits and would feel comfortable using virtual mental health support, according to a survey.

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