4 Ways You Can Treat the Opioid and Suicide Epidemic

Only 22 percent of employers have, or plan to implement, programs aimed at these problems.
By: | March 29, 2019 • 2 min read

As the nation and world struggle to address the epidemic in opioid- and suicide-related deaths, it appears that many employers continue to be sitting on the sidelines.

That’s according to a just-released study by Willis Towers Watson titled 2019 Emerging Trends in Health Care Survey: Mental Health , which finds the majority of employers have no plans to focus on opioid abuse (55 percent) and suicide prevention (63 percent).

Just as troubling, the researchers found that only 22 percent of employers currently have, or plan to implement this year, programs aimed at opioid use and suicide prevention.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last November found that the suicide rate in the U.S. increased 33 percent between 1999 and 2017—or from 10.5 to 14 people per every 100,000. Meanwhile, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported in January that the number of U.S. overdose deaths involving antidepressants, such as opioids, increased by more than 200 percent over that same period—from 1,749 in 1999 to 5,269 in 2017.

If there’s a silver lining in the Willis Towers Watson research, it’s the fact that an additional 23 percent of employers are considering initiatives to prevent opioid abuse in 2020 or 2021, while 15 percent are considering programs to prevent suicide in that same time frame.

There also are some positive findings on mental and behavioral health in general, where 70 percent of employers say they are currently taking—or plan to take—action by 2021. These actions include reducing the taboo associated with mental illness by encouraging open discussion and building a judgment-free culture. Other steps include partnering with an outside vendor to provide support relating to mental-health services and resources.

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Still, the study found that fewer than half of employers (46 percent) have taken actions around mental and behavioral health for 2019.

True, the percentage of employers that are already doing something about these problems is presently small, but Jeff Levin-Scherz, M.D., a health-management-practice co-leader at Willis Towers Watson, sees it as a positive that the number is rapidly climbing.

So, what steps should employers be taking to address these problems? Levin-Scherz suggests a good place to start would be to revisit your plan design, looking at whether coverage is affordable and whether their networks are extensive enough to address the needs of employees and their families.

As a part of that effort, he says, employers would also do well to take a closer look at the level and accessibility of coverage for medications and therapy, especially as it related to opioid treatment. While getting coverage these days for detox may not be so hard, he explains, getting coverage for ongoing therapy can be extremely difficult.

Further, he says, you should revisit what you’re doing to diminish the stigma around behavioral-health issues.

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“People are much more willing to get help … when they know that they’re not alone,” Levin-Scherz says. “In a country with 72,000 deaths from opioid overdoses and suicide rates involving various segments of the population rising,” he says, “there are a lot of employees and their families facing these concerns and facing these tragedies.”

During a recent teleconference at Willis Towers Watson, Levin-Scherz recalls, one of his colleagues shared her story of losing a brother to suicide. “It was a very, very painful journey and was very meaningful to people around the firm, especially those who experienced a similar loss.”

Knowing they aren’t alone can be extremely powerful to someone who has experienced the loss of a love one to suicide, he adds.

Levin-Scherz also emphasized the importance of manager training. “Employers need to make sure managers are aware of what resources are available for [those] people who might be in crisis or have families in crisis,” Levin-Scherz says. “I don’t know if you can necessarily train for empathy, but you can certainly help train people on how to respond to [a person who is going through such a crisis].”

And finally, he says, regularly revisit your employee-assistance program, looking at the scope of its services and whether it’s being well-communicated.

Given the importance of these issues, the subject of behavioral health is not surprisingly a key theme at this year’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference in Las Vegas next month. The program includes a general-session panel on “Outside-the-Box Mental-Health Strategies,” led by HRE‘s Benefits columnist Carol Harnett, as well as a breakout panel titled “Treating the Opioid Crisis: Workplace Challenges and Remedies,’ ” led by Brian Gifford, director of research and analytics at the Integrated Benefits Institute.

David Shadovitz is editor emeritus and former editor and co-publisher for HRE.