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Blue Cross report: Pandemic having outsized effects on millennials’ mental, physical health


The COVID-19 pandemic has had a larger negative health impact on the millennial age group than on baby boomers, according to a new national survey conducted by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. 

The survey found that 92% of millennials said the COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health, compared with 70% of baby boomers. Additionally, 80% of millennials believe that their mental health affects their physical health, compared with 62% of baby boomers.

The findings come from a new BCBSA report, “Millennial Health Trends in Behavioral Conditions,” part of its “Health of America Report” series. The report analyzed a data sample of 55 million commercially insured Blue Cross and Blue Shield members who belong to the millennial age group, defined as people ages 22-37 in 2018.  

The additional year of data shows that millennial health continues to decline, driven by notable increases in behavioral health conditions, including a 12% increase in major depression, a 7% increase in alcohol use disorder, and a 5% increase in tobacco use disorder and substance use disorder.

Mark Talluto, the association’s vice president of strategy and analytics, was among the presenters in a two-day virtual forum on millennial health hosted by BCBSA last week that explored implications of generational health trends for employers and health care providers. 

“Millennials with behavioral health conditions are twice as likely to have a chronic physical condition,” Talluto said. “This is concerning because one-third of millennials report a behavioral health condition.” 

The 2020 report provides an update to an initial Health of Millennials report released in April 2019 that found that millennials with behavioral health conditions are at nearly two times the risk of having chronic physical conditions such as hypertension, Crohn’s disease, type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease. 

“We have five years of data now, and we see that millennial health continues to decline,” Talluto said. Additionally, the ongoing pandemic is driving an increase in negative behaviors that can exacerbate poor health conditions. The survey found a 34% increase in reported alcohol consumption and 20% increase in smoking among millennials since the pandemic began in March. 

Economic anxiety during this current recession appears to be higher for millennials than for other generations, said Kim Lear, a multigenerational work expert and consultant. In an opening session, Lear highlighted key socioeconomic events that shaped each generation. 

Growing up with technology and social media and the violence of school shootings defined the millennials, with the technological savvy giving them tremendous influence and ability to collaborate, but in a new environment of locked-down schools and active-shooter drills. They became risk-averse, and faced a lot of economic anxiety as they became adults in the Great Recession. 

“Before COVID even happened, many millennials found themselves in a precarious economic situation,” Lear said. “Earnings never recovered for millennials after the 2008 recession, even after unemployment did.”   

In a separate session, economist Mark Zandi, chief economist with Moody’s Analytics, noted that millennials currently account for one-third of all American workers and are now the largest group of working Americans. 

Although about half of the 22 million jobs that were lost during the first wave of the pandemic have come back, “there’s a lot of stress out there, and it’s been very hard on millennials,” Zandi said. Part of the reason is that many millennials work in industries that have been hit the hardest, among them hospitality and health care, he said. 

The pandemic is accelerating changes in how consumers are interacting with the health care system, said Michael Chernew, professor of health care policy with Harvard Medical School and director of its Healthcare Markets and Regulation Lab. He presented with Zandi on the videoconference.  

“Obviously, it’s been a huge shock to providers financially,’ he said. “A lot of aid has been provided, and more may be coming. I’m particularly worried about primary care providers, and long-term care providers, and those serving the less advantaged. These effects are not going to be uniform across communities. Independent of the pandemic, we were on a course to do more telehealth and telemedicine. The pandemic accelerated that.” 

Millennials will emerge from the pandemic with a lot more personal debt, on top of billions in student debt that has already delayed starting families and buying homes, Chernew said. Rebounding demand in health care will help solve the financial challenges for providers, “but those payments are going to be coming from a much more financially challenged population,” he said. 

Going into the eighth month of the pandemic, business leaders are asking what they can do to help relieve some of the stress on workers, Lear said.  

For one thing, “focus more on what gets done, and obsess less about how and when because people are working unconventional hours,” she said. Additionally, align organizational policies with the norms that are actually followed. 

“That’s been a topic for 15 years, but it hasn’t happened,” Lear said. As an example, if an organization provides its workers with additional “mental health days” as a benefit, make sure that what’s available is actually usable. Another guideline to consider: Don’t schedule meetings during the lunch hour when families that are all at home are trying to feed their kids, she said.

Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield officials in Des Moines said they plan to release an e-book with Iowa-specific data on this topic next week on Nov. 10. 

Download the report here.

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