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Much of the world is now in a lockdown due to COVID-19. As a result, many are dealing with new acute mental health issues, such as depression arising from isolation and anxiety over employment, health and financial uncertainty. The Disaster Distress Helpline, a federally operated crisis hotline, has seen a 338% increase in call volume in March compared with February, and 891% increase since March last year. Many are facing furloughs and layoffs, higher education students have been sent packing from their college dorms and social isolation and loneliness have arisen from self-quarantining and social distancing orders. In response, many companies have turned to digital platforms for solutions. Let’s discuss some of these responses.
Recently, Starbucks announced a partnership with Lyra Health, offering its employees and eligible family members access to 20 sessions annually with a mental health therapist or coach starting April, with video sessions available to accommodate stay-at-home orders.
“Mental health is a fundamental part of our humanity and these resources will make a meaningful difference in people’s lives and help break the stigma around this complex issue,” said Kevin Johnson, Starbucks president and CEO.
With a workforce of around 49,000 and founded in 1999 with an initial focus on sales automation software, Salesforce has grown into a large cloud software company with a focus on customer relationship management.
Salesforce recently undertook a survey of its employees, which showed that 36% of staff reported mental health issues during the COVID-19 crisis. In response, the company developed virtual workouts and meditations led by Jack Kornfield, a mindfulness teacher, and Plum Village Monastics, as well as invited highly regarded mental health clinicians and public speakers to discuss how to manage anxiety and help children and family members during the pandemic. In addition, Salesforce has pledged to not undertake any significant layoffs during the crisis and has donated to UC San Francisco’s COVID-19 Response Fund and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Foundation’s Emergency Response Fund to fight the virus.
[Related: Companies are making mental-health care fast and accessible]
Survivors of intimate partner violence are particularly affected by COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, for obvious reasons. In the 21st century, domestic violence survivors depend on technology more than ever to keep them safe, leading to Cornell’s Clinic to End Tech Abuse (CETA) developing a remote program to help survivors use their devices without fear of monitoring or stalking.
According to CETA, because of COVID-19, many must stay inside with their abuser, creating new ways for abusers to control victims. CETA has long provided in-person tech assistance to intimate partner violence survivors whose abusers are monitoring their phones and online accounts, but they have now developed a system for offering this advice remotely while avoiding alerting the abuser that the survivor is seeking help.
“Finding safe ways to give advice to abuse survivors who fear their partners are monitoring every call, chat, or email has been especially challenging during this difficult time — but necessity is the parent of invention,” said Sarah St. Vincent, director of CETA. “As survivors turn to technology more than ever to connect with social services and the outside world, we’re here to help prevent abusers from taking advantage of the crisis.”
[Related: Tech for good during COVID-19: Texts for frontline workers, a crisis prevention hotline and more]
As a graduate student, this issue is particularly close to my heart, as I’m now taking all my classes online because of the pandemic. I have had to find other ways to seek support, as I no longer have access to the physical face-to-face camaraderie I previously enjoyed with my peers and instructors. But even before the COVID-19 pandemic, research showed a broad worsening of mental health indicators among college students. Now students are faced with adapting to distance learning, isolation from peers, and added concerns about family, health and financial security, among other stressors.
This led two companies to team up and develop Nod, a free app that helps college students connect during the crisis. The app uses evidence-based strategies including positive psychology, cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing and mindfulness-based self-compassion to improve student resilience and provides social connection tips and tools to help students maintain meaningful connections while staying safe and healthy. While Nod was originally developed to help college students maintain connections and combat loneliness during non-pandemic times, the app’s developers, Hopelab and Grit Digital Health, quickly pivoted to respond to the reality of stay-at-home orders. Research conducted at the University of Oregon last year shows that Nod has reduced loneliness and depression symptoms among vulnerable students.
“Social connection is a powerful driver of psychological resilience and mental wellbeing. Our early evaluation with students shows that Nod can buffer the students who are most vulnerable against negative mental health outcomes in their first year of college,” said Danielle Ramo, Ph.D. and senior director of research at Hopelab. “In the absence of support, coronavirus could have a grave impact on college students’ mental health. Nod can support students by helping them maintain and build social ties, even during the pandemic.”
With companies adapting quickly in response to the COVID-19 crisis, it is evident that health and mental health services, including nonprofits, are innovating how they provide services, as this blog article highlights. Some organizations have had little choice but to innovate or else lose business and clients. Has COVID-19 provided a much needed “jolt” for the mental health sector? Is digital therapy here to stay?
Digital mental health solutions have several unique benefits. They’re discreet, meaning people can avoid the perceived stigma associated with being seen walking into a therapist’s office, and illness or geographical inconvenience may keep someone from accessing traditional in-person therapy, so online care may be someone’s only way of accessing care. When social distancing measures are finally lifted, could digital therapy play a more prominent role in mental health treatment across the board?
It will be interesting to see whether this wave of innovation will continue when the pandemic passes. When social distancing rules are lifted, I wonder if digital therapy will feature more prominently.