Why family mental health is important for employers

How your group benefits plan can support the mental health of your employees and their family members

April 26, 2023

For business owners, plan sponsors and administrators

By Cori Lawson-Roberts

Cori is a parent and mental health advocate. In her role as Manulife’s AVP, Disability Innovation & Integrity, she focuses on providing services and solutions to support people on their health recovery journey so that they can return to work.

Like so many other parents, I worry about my child’s mental health. From the constant and steady pressures of social media to re-adjusting after the isolation brought on by the pandemic – when kids were out of school and away from friends and extracurricular activities – the amount of stress our kids are feeling is significant, and in many cases, new. When children struggle, so do their parents. And parents don’t always have the strategies and tools to help their children. That's where your group benefits plan can help.

Are youth getting the help they need?

Today, mental illness affects 1.2 million children.1 It’s estimated that 20 per cent of children and youth in Canada will experience mental illness.2

Manulife’s group benefits health data shows a 37% increase from 2020 to 2021, and a 32.4% increase between 2021 and 2022, in youth aged 17 and under who are seeking reimbursement for mental health claims.

I think the claims increases we see in the data from 2020 to 2022 is a good sign. It shows that younger people are recognizing that they need support and they’re seeking out help from a mental health professional. And when that happens, it’s especially important for the entire family to support the young person.

For a youth, dealing with a mental health concern is a different experience compared to that of an older person. For instance, counselling is a great first step for a young person who is learning to cope with a mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression, but it requires support and buy-in from the whole family – especially parents. 

This might be because youth only have so much control over their environment and circumstances, so meaningful change needs to be supported by the adults in their lives. With the support of their family, young people can learn good mental health coping strategies that they can use for years to come.

Rallying around parents as they support their child’s mental health

If you have a youth experiencing or living with a mental health issue, you know that worry and fear can be constant companions. An unexpected phone call can immediately cause us to wonder, “What’s gone wrong? How bad is it? What can I do to help?” We want to be there for our kids, but it takes a toll on us as parents too – often both mentally and physically.

That’s why it’s so important for parents to take care of their own mental health and seek emotional support. Perhaps their child’s therapy plan should also include counselling for parents and the other family members, individually or as a group. Not only will that help the parent cope with the situation, but it sets a strong example for the child and sends an incredible message of support and compassion.

Without this “care for the caregiver,” when a parent is busy trying to support their child’s mental health on their own, it means that they might not have the emotional or cognitive energy to engage with work as they usually do.

Despite their best efforts, parents may feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and unsuccessful in helping their child manage their mental health concerns – leading to parents being less engaged while at work, or worse, being absent or going off work completely.

“Parents and caregivers often experience an extraordinary burden of stress when trying to navigate a child’s mental health concerns,” says Dr. Steve Pomedli of Cleveland Clinic Canada, Manulife’s Medical Director. “This can be compounded by feelings of helplessness, fear, and uncertainty when the resources and supports that will help the child feel better are hard to find or difficult to access. Effective support for a child’s mental health also extends to supporting parents and caregivers in a timely manner.”

Take action to support employees helping their kids through mental health issues

  1. Train leaders to be more aware of mental health issues and build psychological safety: Help managers feel comfortable asking their employees “How are you doing” and “How can I help?” These are simple phrases, but if a leader sees someone who is struggling, a conversation may be the first step to ensuring that the employee gets the flexibility and support they need to be able to care for their child.
  2. Look at leave programs: Sometimes flexible work arrangements may not be enough. Is your short-term leave program sufficient to help employees who are having issues at home – without adding unnecessary stress? If an employee is supporting a child with mental health needs, a short-term leave program (rather than a disability leave) can allow an employee to be there for the people who need them.
  3. Include virtual care options in plans: If you haven’t already, consider adding online healthcare for assessments, treatment (including psychotherapy, if needed) and check-ins. It can be much quicker for employees to speak with someone online, and it can save time travelling to appointments. Digital mental health solutions might be the best fit for some, given their familiarity with technology, preferences for communication, and the autonomy it can provide.
  4. Ensure your plan provides adequate coverage: Today, the median coverage offered by Canadian employers is $750.00 for mental health. That equates to 3-5 sessions of psychotherapy and, in many cases, that’s simply not enough. For example, people diagnosed with a major depressive disorder or an anxiety disorder typically need 8-20 sessions to adequately manage their mental illness.3 Parents may also need support to learn coping mechanisms that can help them deal with the added stress. To support your employees and their dependants, it’s suggested to include mental health coverage of at least $2000.00-$4000.00 a year.4
  5. Include care options in your plan: Part of helping youth get care is having them choose the person or supports that work for them and help them see they have a voice. For parents, it requires patience and perseverance to help their child search for the provider and not let this strain their relationship with their child. A plan with options that include therapists, counsellors, and other care providers can help ease the challenging journey of finding the best care for everyone.

My best advice: talk about mental health and your plan

I encourage everyone to be open and transparent when it comes to talking about mental health. Feature evidence based mental health topics at your employee townhalls and continue to reference the importance of mental health in your communications with employees. Make your workplace a safe environment for employees to talk about mental health and what they, or their children, may be struggling with. Be clear about your mental healthcare coverage and detail how employees can access your mental health services in a timely fashion. 

If your employees and their families need help selecting the right mental health professional, share this article with them: A guide to mental health professionals in Canada | Manulife

Remember that Manulife is here to help: our Workplace Well-being team can help you develop and implement employee mental health programs and provide you with useful mental health resources. To get started, contact your Manulife representative today.

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