Processing the Past Year
“I know, honestly, over the past year, I’ve had a couple situations where I felt like I just wanted out.”
Jill Benner will bravely tell you that she wasn't always keen on using the ample time at home during the pandemic to brush up on her bread-baking skills or invest in a fun new hobby. The senior speech analyst with T-Mobile's Customer Care says the panic, paranoia and unprecedented isolation caused by the pandemic tested her mental health in ways she could never have anticipated.
She, of course, is not alone.
A recent CDC pulse survey measured response changes from July 2019 to July 2020 and found:
- Rates of anxiety and depression were up 100 percent, year over year
- 41 percent of adults reported experiencing mental health distress
- 13 percent of those surveyed reported having started or increased alcohol or drug use during the time period to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19
- 10 percent seriously considered suicide in the previous 30 days due to pandemic-related stress
And yet, among adults reporting symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder, more than 20 percent admitted needing but not receiving counseling or therapy in the past month during the pandemic. Benner says she was scared to be one of those people, until she began looking into what employee benefits were offered to her. What she found was something of a lifeline.
In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, we spoke with Benner to understand how she successfully made use of a digital well-being resource offered by T-Mobile to employees called LiveMagenta, as well as mental health experts who provide care through the program. By discussing what’s working and what isn’t with those who have lived through it on both the patient and professional side, a roadmap for greater success of care well beyond the COVID-19 pandemic is uncovered, as well as hope for what actually waits for us beyond.
"The ability to call someone or speak to someone right away was so key," says Benner, "especially if you're feeling overwhelmed or anxious. It's important to your overall well-being and your health. Just having access to someone to talk to is so very important.
Feeling the Effects
"Pandemic-induced anxiety," Benner says bluntly, when asked what causes her trouble lately. "Being alone. If you don't get to see your family for extended periods of time, it can be very difficult."
Benner's story is all too familiar. The specifics may change from person to person, but according to T-Mobile partners at UnitedHealthcare and Optum - who have collected data from various clients now examining the mental health effects of the pandemic on their employees - the tone remains consistent.
“Why do people need mental health resources?” asks Jessica Zach, an Optum Senior Client Executive partner with T-Mobile. “One of the leading diagnostic drivers in the mental health space today is anxiety and most of the recent feelings of anxiety that people are experiencing is attributed to the pandemic.”
Anxiety and trauma stress-related disorders being named the primary reason for seeking help has actually remained steady since the early months of pandemic lockdowns when nearly half of Americans reported the coronavirus crisis was affecting their mental health, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
A federal emergency hotline received an increase in calls by 1,000 percent between April 2019 and April 2020. Experts began digging into the data to learn about the surge, finding that many more people experiencing emotional distress were reaching out for help, and using their devices to do so.
Since 2017, T-Mobile has offered its well-being benefit LiveMagenta, which provides a wide-range of resources across a bevy of areas, from financial to physical and emotional. Whether you're looking to stop smoking, save up to buy a home, prepare to adopt a child or focus on your mental health, LiveMagenta seeks to connect T-Mobile employees with experts and the tools to tackle some of life's big challenges. The program was expanded to include legacy Sprint employees soon after the merger with T-Mobile in 2020, and the types of services provided, especially in the mental health space, evolved over time - from apps to virtual therapy programs.
"I think things are getting better, but there's still fear," explains Benner. "People are going through fear of what happens when things open up. Will this reoccur? There's an unknown, and having access to tools [like these] is so important to be able to work through those kinds of questions. LiveMagenta gives you that access, which is just phenomenal."
In November, T-Mobile also became the first wireless company to extend mental health resources to customers via the nationwide 988 emergency lifeline. Those in need of free mental health support were able to access it immediately by dialing 988 to be connected directly to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a network of approximately 180 local and state-funded crisis centers. Further reinforcing that our devices are key to finding help even as we prepared for vaccinations and easing of COVID-19 restriction, since introducing this free service, some 15,000 people have made use of it — with the highest recorded use more recently in March and April of this year (7,933 to be exact).
Mental Health Help, Virtually Anytime
Though adopting new healthy habits isn’t always easy, one trend that experts are trying to understand better in order to make mental health resources more accessible is the uptick in virtual visits since 2020, and the common behavioral traits when using them.
Through LiveMagenta, T-Mobile offers employees free access to premium apps for mental health support. One such app is Sanvello, which provides “clinical techniques to help dial down the symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression — anytime.”
Another set of tools widely used by T-Mobile employees are digital self-care videos and modules such as eM Life. These self-paced online courses and mindfulness exercises invite people to consume video modules over a certain period of time to learn coping methods and then offer new tools with subsequent modules.
And then there is Talkspace, a network provider where members can have virtual visits and/or text based therapy with a clinician.
Robin Bassler, a former Life Coach and current leader within the T-Mobile’s Employee Assistance program that provides LiveMagenta, says it’s not just that virtual resources are clearly a more viable option at the moment, but it’s how people use the time once they’re plugged in that she’s most interested in.
"We have also seen a significant jump in members using virtual services, such as virtual counseling and more visits to the website for self-care material," says Bassler. "But we have also noticed members who are calling in are spending more time on the phone with us and members who were engaged with a counselor prior were attending visits more often," she adds.
Dr. Seth Sextner, Optum Chief Health Officer
"Just because we may be starting to open up our society again. It doesn't mean we are automatically feeling back to normal."
Bassler and Zach say companies like T-Mobile have been investing in these trends in hopes it will allow the space to evolve and eventually become part of the new post-pandemic zeitgeist. And, from the most recent numbers, it's a method that seems to be working. According to Zach, not only are virtual programs being used 100 percent more of the time across all corporate clients compared to 2019, but in T-Mobile's case, where more than one kind of digital option is offered, employees are more apt to find something that suits their needs. T-Mobile's employees used their LiveMagenta well-being resources at a far greater percentage than Optum's other clients utilized their employee benefits during the last months of 2020.
“This demonstrated more awareness of the service and a higher desire to use services by T-Mobile employees,” explains Zach.
It’s an investment that is backed by outside studies as well. Many therapists have transitioned to teletherapy because of coronavirus lockdowns, and there’s actually already research from the past three decades which found that video-enabled teletherapy is as effective as in-person therapy and that the therapeutic relationship and satisfaction with therapy do not suffer.
“It’s important to always evolve resources to adapt and fit into peoples’ lifestyles and to provide a comprehensive offering,” says Bassler. “That is an area that I’ve been most excited about in terms of how we have incorporated more tools and resources for people to use such as in the moment self-care through the Sanvello Premium app and introducing Talkspace.”
Talkspace reported a 65 percent jump in clients mid-February of 2020, showcasing an obvious appetite for their service. Text messages and transcribed therapy sessions collected anonymously by the company show coronavirus-related anxiety dominated patients’ concerns. And users at T-Mobile like Benner say it’s continued to be a helpful resource as we start to navigate the unknown of post-lockdown life.
"Talkspace has been a great resource," says Benner. "I got to talk about things stressing me out with someone online." And the entire suite of tools has had a cumulative effect in her overall mental health. "Since the pandemic started it's helped me be less anxious," Benner adds, "and helped me to manage overthinking and stress."
Serving Those Who Serve
As May is also Military Appreciation month, there’s a natural focus on how the pandemic has affected our veterans and other military service men and women.
Before the pandemic, mental health was already a complicated issue in the military. Nearly one in three U.S. service members who have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan report having developed a mental health condition requiring treatment. Approximately 730,000 men and women were surveyed, with many experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression, but less than 50 percent of returning veterans in need receive any mental health help. As the country at large grapples with the mental health effects of COVID-19, many within the military community are questioning how this will impact those men and women who were already working to find a stable foundation.
"Mental health can affect all people, and it has particular impacts on members of the military community," says Tana Avellar, Co-Chair of T-Mobile's Veteran & Allies Network (VAN) employee resource group. "Hardships are felt whether you are in uniform, a spouse taking care of kids while your loved one is deployed, or a kiddo who has to learn saying goodbye to friends and new schools are a part life's normal in a military family. These unique experiences can bring on mental health struggles which are even more amplified during today's environment. It's important to call out mental health because we have a captive audience listening."
T-Mobile has created resources through LiveMagenta specifically for its VAN employees, such as eM Life sessions dedicated to helping veterans who are navigating the challenges of adjusting to civilian life. There’s also something called Live and Work Well Content that contains articles, guides and videos focused on mental health in areas such as deployment stress, family support and reunion and reintegration guidance.
Deeanne King, T-Mobile’s Executive Vice President & chief Human Resources officer
"Mental health comes in so many shapes and sizes - sometimes it's traumatic and other times it takes on a lesser weight, but it keeps us from being our best. In the past year, we all have been in the same ocean but not all in the same boats and we never know which boat someone is in…"
Prepared For The Road Ahead
As we look to push forward, it’s key to recognize learnings of the past year and evolve old systems, not only for the crisis that could once again come our way, but for a better baseline overall.
"The pandemic has been difficult," says Bassler, "but people are very resilient. I think people have learned some important lessons - lessons that will help when they are faced with adversity again."
It's in this train of thought that one can assess that the pandemic has made us more prepared and stronger to face challenges of all kinds. Deeanne King, T-Mobile's Executive Vice President & Chief Human Resources Officer, believes that by forcing us to innovate ways to create more readily accessible mental health resources, we're in a better place to help those in need utilize tools for survival whether for reasons related to the pandemic or just for managing everyday stress.
"When I originally sent out the note about resources to support employees with COVID and leaned in on LiveMagenta and tending to their mental health - I can't even tell you how many employees I heard from that said basically, 'Wow, this must mean that I am not the only one struggling - thank you for helping me not feel alone here,'" shares King. "Mental health comes in so many shapes and sizes - sometimes it's traumatic and other times it takes on a lesser weight, but it keeps us from being our best. In the past year, we all have been in the same ocean but not all in the same boats and we never know which boat someone is in - if they are bailing water or patching it as they go - so there is nothing more important in today's world than taking a minute to ask 'How are you, really?' and really listening and getting folks to these great resources if they need it."
And the investment T-Mobile has made into connecting people to those resources is something King says she believes will reveal benefits long after the pandemic. And that's the point. The work isn't finished once the pandemic ends. Our problems don't evaporate and the tough times don't magically improve. But how we cope can.