The coronavirus pandemic has significantly increased the number of mental-health supports that employees have access to as well as their willingness to seek help when they need it, said Georgia Pomaki, leader of mental-health specialists, wellness, disability and life at Manulife Financial Corp., during Benefits Canada’s 2021 Mental Health Summit.

Canadian insurers paid out $420 million in psychology claims in 2020, a staggering 24 per cent increased from 2019, according to the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association’s latest data. “This is an astounding level of support and that’s a positive trend,” she said. “We’re seeing more mental-health benefits being offered to workers and more workers are reaching out for treatment.”

Read: Health benefits claims paid out to support mental health rose 24% in 2020: CLHIA

Also speaking during the session, Chris Anderson, president of Medaca Health Group, said his organization has seen similar trends during the pandemic. Since 2019, it has experienced a 30 per cent increase in people needing to see a psychiatrist.

“What really stood out to me is that during COVID, employees are putting up their hands a lot faster. They’re identifying themselves much earlier than we were seeing before the pandemic, more [are] coming into [short-term disability] and . . . younger employees are coming in much more often and they are much more willing to say, ‘I have a mental illness and I’m not ashamed of it.’”

Both Anderson and Pomaki noted they see a silver lining in those statistics. “Because people are coming to us faster, most of these cases are more moderate and thus they’re easily treatable,” said Anderson. “Our return-to-work numbers for Medaca actually improved during the pandemic and we think that’s why.”

However, it isn’t all good news. Edward Yuzda, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist who works with Medaca, said he’s now seeing people with almost no history of mental illness coming forward with “significant” mental-health problems, which they often connect back to the pandemic.

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Prior to the public health crisis, Yuzda said he often saw patients dealing with just one mental illness and perhaps a co-morbid anxiety condition. But now, he’s more likely to see people with numerous different conditions, because of additional anxiety, sleep issues, the stress of being isolated and more.

“My own personal opinion is, we’re all social creatures. . . . Despite our attempts to try to communicate with one another, we’re not meant to be isolated like this. So it’s creating this huge wave of disability in people who have never had disability before, people who’ve never had a mental illness before, young and old.”

Yuzda referred to a recent study by the Journal of the American Medical Association, which found mental-health symptoms aren’t diminishing as the pandemic wanes and vaccination rates climb.

In addition, Anderson noted employers are facing numerous mental-health challenges coming out of the pandemic. He said he’s frequently hearing from plan sponsors that have expressed concern about their remote employees’ mental health as they return to the physical workplace and about the resilience of frontline employees.

Plan sponsors will need to ensure their benefits plans meet the changing needs of employees, said Pomaki, which could result in a permanent post-pandemic shift in employee benefits. For example, many employers moved to cover a wider range of mental-health professionals during the pandemic, which could point to the future of mental-health supports, she added, noting she also hopes to see coverage maximums increase.

Read: Employers enhancing mental-health benefits over next three years, finds survey

“I think part of our future is . . . that we’re removing every barrier to workers who need [support] for themselves or their family members.”

With plan members increasingly dealing with mental health and additional comorbidities, Anderson said he expects to see more integration of benefits offerings in the future. “There’s just an entire myriad of solutions out there — cognitive behavioural therapy, wellness, psychiatry services — so we’re going to have to learn how to customize these services and to bring the right ones to the right person at the right time.”

Manulife was already integrating services and plan member data pre-pandemic, said Pomaki, noting it’s only ramped up. “Why are we looking at pharmacy, wellness and disability separately? It doesn’t make any sense. Integrating that data . . . [can help] at-risk workers, those who perhaps are not quite even aware or don’t want to be aware that they have a need and being able to offer them services before their symptoms become a crisis.”

Read more coverage of the 2021 Mental Health Summit.