Cigna study: Why employers should take a greater role in addressing teen mental health

Mental health concerns are on the rise among teens, and the impact on parents and families is an unmet need employers could address, new data from Cigna's Evernorth show.

The pandemic has significantly worsened mental health among teens and young adults, with 25% experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms, a JAMA study shows. About 80% of the 1,000 parents included in Cigna's survey said their children are struggling with their mental health.

Nearly one-fifth (18%) of parents say their child's needs are negatively impacting their job performance and productivity, according to the survey. In addition, 55% said they do not have enough support from their employer, and 1 in 7 said they were forced to leave or stay out of the workforce to manage their teenager's needs.

"I think there's going to be a long tail for these kids and also their family members," Stuart Lustig, M.D., national medical executive for behavioral health at Evernorth, told Fierce Healthcare. "I think we're in this for the long haul."

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Lustig, a child psychiatrist himself, said the increase in behavioral health challenges among teens is particularly concerning as it's not receding with the pandemic. Thirty-nine percent of the surveyed parents reported new or increasing anxiety during COVID, and 34% reported new or increasing problems with social interactions for their teenagers.

Ten percent reported new or increased substance abuse, and 8% reported new or increased suicidal thoughts for their teenage children, the survey found.

The surveyed parents reported a number of barriers to helping their teens access help for their mental health conditions, with 64% saying they were struggling to find a trusted mental health provider. In addition, 63% reported long wait times, and 57% said they had trouble paying for mental health services.

"It's really a call to action for anyone who can help parents," Lustig said.

This is where large and small employers come in, he said, as there is a significant untapped opportunity for them to play a role in helping workers manage these needs. The first step, which has become an increasing priority for many employers, is to foster a workplace culture where people acknowledge and value mental health.

Employers can also make accommodations for employees who are struggling to manage their children's mental health needs. For example, 63% of the surveyed parents said flexible work arrangements would make it easier for them to take care of those needs.

The survey recommends that employers set clear expectations for such accommodations but be open to making adjustments as treatments can change.

Employers can also make it clear what benefits their workers have access to and help them use them, such as by educating them on virtual behavioral health options. Lustig said the increase in mental health needs has fueled greater interest from employers in finding solutions, when behavioral health was not a high priority even a decade ago.

"We're all pulling in the same direction at this point," he said.