YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Employers who ignore the mental health needs of their employees do so at the peril of their business, especially during the age of COVID-19.
While much of the population is now vaccinated and great strides have been made in treating the disease, mental health professionals in the region say the effects of the pandemic are still growing.
“We continue to see more people coming in for services that have higher needs than five or six years ago,” says Joe Caruso, president and CEO of Compass Family & Community Services, which serves clients in Mahoning and Trumbull counties.
Caruso says Compass is seeing more people turning to substance abuse to cope with the stresses of the pandemic.
“People lost a lot of friends and family during the height of the pandemic. And during that time nobody was able to really grieve,” he says.
“I think we bottled it up and kept it inside.”
The situation here is reflective of the trends mental health professionals are seeing across the country.
A survey in June by the Centers for Disease Control found that 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse.
“I think it’s probably the uncertainty,” posits Sheila Donnadio, the outpatient and mental health program manager at Meridian Healthcare in Youngstown.
But despite the uncertain future, many workers are deciding to quit their jobs and leave the workplace.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a record 4.3 million Americans – nearly 3% of the entire workforce – quit their jobs in August.
Mental health professionals say some of that is being driven by issues caused or exacerbated by the pandemic.
When coupled with the pressures of an already stressful workplace, many find themselves having to choose between their job and their mental health.
“That tells you the significance of what people are facing,” says Caruso.
“I think employers need to recognize and see that this is something that is weighing on their employees.”
“In terms of retention you need to be sensitive to your employees’ needs and one of them is mental health,” she says.
Donnadio emphasizes that everybody deals with stress differently and the pandemic affects each person in a unique way. “People may have somebody they have lost because of the virus,” she says.
Donnadio recommends employers be more cognizant of their employees’ stress levels and be on the watch for burnout. She also recommends giving employees more flexibility to deal with issues in their personal lives.
Caruso encourages employers to intervene if they notice an employee struggling. “Employers have invested a lot into their employees, and their employees’ health and well-being is very important to the success of their businesses,” he says.
Family Recovery Center in Lisbon works with employers during the hiring process and offers services for employees who need assistance.
CEO Eloise Traina says through the agency’s training programs they provide employers with checklists of the warning signs to look for in employees.
“We encourage employers to communicate, monitor what’s happening and take a look at some of the checklists that are coming out with some of the mental health issues their employees may be involved with,” she says.
Another option is an employee assistance program. EAPs are voluntary work-based programs that offer counseling, assessments and other services.
“Mental health has always been stigmatized,” says Donnadio. “I think now employers are more apt to engage in counseling services and make those services available to employees.”
Indeed, mental health service providers are facing the same issues as everyone else: burnout, increased levels of stress among employees and staffing shortages.
“It’s a hot mess,” says Linda Finnigan, director of business development at Belmont Pines Hospital in Liberty Township.
“We are kind of limited in what we can provide because we’re struggling with having enough staff to provide the level of care that we need to provide,” she says.
Belmont Pines serves children age 5 to 18. Recently, Finnigan says, the hospital is seeing an increased amount of calls for children presenting in emergency rooms with mental and behavioral health issues, primarily driven by the pandemic.
While the demand is greater than ever, she says they’re probably serving fewer children than they were pre-pandemic due to staffing shortages.
Finnigan says anxiety caused by the pandemic was the main reason cited by employees who left.
“They said they weren’t comfortable working in a health care setting anymore and they were getting out of health care completely,” she says.
At Alta Behavioral Healthcare in Boardman, CEO Joe Shorokey says the number of clients coming through the doors began to climb in the fall of 2021 and “has continued to increase ever since.”
In terms of monthly referrals, he says their numbers are “higher than ever.”
“I think the significant increase has everything to do with COVID,” Shorokey says. “We have more demand for services than we’ve ever had and not enough staff to serve them.”
Alta offers mental and behavioral health services to children and young adults up to age 21.
Pre-COVID, Shorokey says most patients came in displaying externalizing behaviors, such as fighting or problems with conduct in school.
Today more children are coming in exhibiting internalizing behaviors, such as anxiety and social phobias. “The ratio has really shifted,” he says.
Shorokey says children are especially vulnerable because their brains are still developing, and the pandemic has caused a disruption in that development. “Some of the younger kids, 5, 6, 7 years old, are going into a classroom for the very first time,” he says.
Finnigan says school counselors are telling her that in some cases children are having to re-learn how to be around their peers, “and it’s not easy for them. Even people with good coping skills are struggling, so you can imagine what it’s like to be a child,” she says.
For parents, the demands of virtual learning were significant, Finnigan says. “If you’re a working parent, it affected you.”
Finnigan recommends parents who see a child exhibiting problems seek help from an outpatient provider or counselor. Belmont Pines offers a partial hospitalization program in which children go there instead of school for a period of about two weeks.
“They take part in different groups, they learn coping skills. They have time for education,” she says.
Alta staff is working on new ways to engage with children other than traditional counseling. After-school programs at the Campus of Care in Mineral Ridge include art therapy, garden therapy, yoga and mindfulness.
“It’s about getting them engaged in social activities that are fun and enjoyable, but interwoven with the therapeutic component,” Shorokey says.
As with adults, the big hurdle is overcoming the stigma surrounding mental health. The important thing, says Caruso, is to realize that mental health affects everyone.
“Anyone who says they haven’t experienced it is kidding themselves,” he says. “No one should take for granted that their own mental health is always solid, because we’re human.”
Pictured: Sheila Donnadio, outpatient mental health program manager at Meridian Healthcare, encourages employers to intervene if employees are struggling.