Addressing the Rise in Behavioral Health Needs from the COVID-19 Pandemic


Unaddressed behavioral health needs impact a health system’s financial, clinical, and equity strategies. According to Milliman, treating patients with behavioral health diagnoses costs about $875 per member per month more than patients without such diagnoses. In 2017, deaths of despair (i.e. those related to suicide, alcohol, and drugs) reached the highest rate since the CDC began collecting this data in 1999.

The lasting pandemic has only exacerbated this trend, with nearly 50% of U.S. adults currently exhibiting some signs of depression. The greatest burden of symptoms occurs among populations with compounding stressors (e.g., job loss and limited childcare) and the least access to financial and social resources.

With the increase in telehealth utilization across health systems, more patients have access to behavioral health consults through virtual channels. However, current approaches to addressing behavioral health needs are often inadequate and fragmented. Despite the relatively high prevalence of affected patients, significant barriers still restrict access to treatment.

Providers must create a proactive strategy to identify, assess, and manage patients’ behavioral health needs—particularly for at-risk populations and caregivers. A comprehensive behavioral health strategy includes at least three tactics:

  • Integrate behavioral health services into all medical and physical health services. Initial targets often include primary care for ongoing management and the ED for crisis stabilization.
  • Leverage technology (e.g., apps and online communities) to scale in-between visit care. Beyond tele-visits, IT tools can enable ongoing symptom management at scale.
  • Activate community-based partners (e.g., social service organizations) in regional hotspots. Partners can help mitigate symptom escalation among hard-to-reach groups.