Kaiser Permanente Addresses COVID-19’s Effects on Mental Health, Offers Free myStrength Mental Health App

During a pandemic, society’s biggest concern is physical health. However, COVID-19 has had an equally crucial impact on people’s mental health, changing routines, affecting finances, limiting socializing and causing many to worry for their — and their loved ones’ — health. Along with its pandemic response, healthcare company Kaiser Permanente (featured on several 2019 Fair360, formerly DiversityInc specialty lists) has added mental healthcare app, myStrength to its portfolio, making it available for free for most members and coming soon to those in Washington state.

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Don Moredecai, MD is a psychiatrist trained in child, adolescent and adult psychiatry. He is the national leader for mental health and wellness at Kaiser Permanente and has been at the company since 2003. (Photo courtesy of Kaiser Permanente)

Kaiser Permanente made the decision to implement the myStrength app — available in both English and Spanish — prior to the coronavirus crisis taking hold in the U.S. It had its soft launch in February, but the company officially announced and began advertising it to members earlier this month. Psychiatrist Don Mordecai, MD who serves as the national leader for mental health and wellness at Kaiser Permanente, told Fair360, formerly DiversityInc the timing was fortunate, but the implementation was always part of Kaiser Permanente’s plan.

“The timing could not have been better,” Dr. Mordecai said. “Here’s a tool to help people deal with stress, sleep problems, mild mood problems, any number of issues, parenting — all kinds of great tools and information. And all of a sudden, COVID-19 hits and we’re able to say to our members, ‘Hey, here’s a great tool. It’s free. We’ve vetted it, we trust it, we think you’ll like it. Please make use of it.’”

Dr. Mordecai said mental health has been a cause Kaiser Permanente has been championing for years. It also offers mental health resources that are free and accessible to the general public, including FindYourWords.org, a website with information on how people can have conversations with others about mental illness. Kaiser Permanente has continued offering services to members via telehealth — a capability the company utilized even before the epidemic. Dr. Mordecai said 90% of mental health visits are now taking place over phone or video chat due to social distancing guidelines.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) acknowledges the mental and emotional effects the coronavirus can have on citizens. Those experiencing extreme fear and anxiety about the disease may notice similar reactions as they would to any stressful or traumatic event: change in sleeping or eating patterns, difficulty concentrating and worsening of chronic health problems and mental conditions. Due to the necessity of isolation and sheltering in place to flatten the curve, there may also be increased use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs.

Dr. Mordecai said that although the public emphasis on self-care during shelter in place orders is a significant step forward, he feels the public could pay more attention those with diagnosed mental disorders — especially substance abuse.

“Substance abuse disorders in particular I think are getting missed a little bit, because people don’t realize the risk for relapse, the risk for overuse when you’re isolated … is actually quite high,” Dr. Mordecai said.

Increased unemployment and financial issues are also raising concerns about suicide.

The CDC offers resources and information to help people recognize the signs of deteriorating mental health in different age groups. Elderly people — who already suffer from often-undetected depression at high rates — may feel strong emotions of isolation and guilt accompanied with physical pain. Children’s and teens’ stress may manifest in behaviors including mood swings, substance use, trouble concentrating and unhealthy eating or sleeping habits.

It also discusses how some people may react more strongly than others. Elderly people or those with diseases that put them at a higher risk of having a severe or critical reaction to the coronavirus may understandably face more anxiety. Additionally, healthcare workers and others on the frontlines might struggle more with coping with the crisis. Children and teens and those who are vulnerable due to mental health or substance abuse issues may also need more support.

People who are already disadvantaged — whether it be because of race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, ability or socioeconomic status may also experience more of the negative effects of the crisis. Those forced to stay inside with abusive or unsupportive family members or partners may also endure increased fear and anxiety. Those with substance abuse disorders are more at risk of relapse, homelessness, incarceration and other health issues, which can put them at a higher risk of contracting — and suffering severe cases of — the coronavirus.

The myStrength app is designed to help with both daily self-care and monitoring more severe mental conditions. It, of course, does not replace the care of a therapist or psychiatrist.

The app works by aiding users with self-care and mental health check-ins. Kaiser Permanente mental health therapists and members chose to integrate the particular app because it has interactive features that provide the ability for users to personalize their experience to help them achieve mindfulness and other mental health goals. The app was originally designed for those with mental or chronic physical health issues. Another reason Kaiser Permanente chose to leverage this app is because of its proven success: myStrength reports it was 74% effective in improving depression scores. It is reportedly 83% as effective as face-to-face therapy, and helps users save money.

Dr. Mordecai said Kaiser Permanente staff and members engaged in a thorough vetting process before officially partnering with myStrength. The company’s clinicians, technology and design staff, and members all took part in the vetting process.

“With myStrength, it went through this very rigorous evaluation process,” Dr. Mordecai said. “We gave it to our members, we asked them to use it, we asked them what they thought about it, we evaluated it ourselves … It’s easy to use, it’s got a really nice … user interface … it’s got some machine learning … We think the tools within it are really applicable to the issues our members are coming to us with.”

Aside from taking care of loved ones through keeping in contact and offering other forms of support, the CDC also offers tips on caring for oneself. Limiting news intake, connecting with others, taking time to unwind and managing physical and mental health through exercise, sleep, healthy eating, meditation, making time for hobbies and limiting alcohol and drug use are all forms of self-care that help mitigate mental illness.

Dr. Mordecai said it is especially important for people to simply check up on themselves and how they’re doing during this stressful time.

“I think we can get into a mode where we’re not paying attention to how we’re actually doing, and we’re sort of carrying a lot of stress and not trying to cope with it, not sharing it with our loved ones, and that can really get to be a burden,” he said.

He also said that the term “social distancing” is somewhat of a misnomer — Although people should be physically distant, social connection through phone calls, messaging, video chat and other means is still incredibly important.

The COVID-19 situation is universally stressful and frightening. People are feeling isolated, worrying about themselves and their loved ones, their finances and their employment. Ultimately, Dr. Mordecai said, he hopes people will emerge with more compassion for those who experience similar emotions constantly because of mental disorders.

“I don’t think there’s anybody that isn’t feeling a certain amount of stress, and that creates, potentially, a kind of empathy, I think, for people who live with that kind of stress all the time,” he said.

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