Behavioral medicine: Preferred by employees, hard to scale for employers

Despite millions of people receiving mental health medications, most would prefer to receive behavioral care.

In 1992, the alternative rock band R.E.M. wrote the song “Everybody Hurts” and it became an instant classic (here, have a listen). Not only is the tune catchy but the lyrics are rather accurate. Decades of psychological research confirm it: Mental health problems are universal and “everybody [does indeed] hurt sometimes.” 

Across the globe, between 18-36% of people suffer from a mental health disorder during their lifetime. Unfortunately, the types of mental health care people have access to remain limited, with psychiatric medications being by far the most common. In fact, 82% of patients being treated for a mental health condition receive medication. In 2019, approximately 16% of American adults (about 33 million people) reported having taken psychiatric medications. 

Despite millions of patients receiving mental health medications, most would actually prefer to receive behavioral mental health care — or what we refer to as behavioral medicine. In an analysis of 34 clinical studies — representing 68,612 patients — people were three times as likely to report a preference for behavioral care over medication. The problem is that most people can’t access traditional behavioral medicine due to a shortage of mental health providers.

Two reasons why people prefer behavioral medicine

There are two main reasons why people prefer care rooted in behavior change. 

First, psychiatric medications often come with side effects. One study found that among people taking antidepressants, 58% experienced at least moderately severe side effects. In addition, medications for anxiety and depression frequently cause weight gain and sexual problems, and medications for insomnia increase the risk for falls and auto accidents

Second, behavioral medicine is more likely to offer lasting benefits. When people receive care based on cognitive behavioral techniques, they learn strategies that address the root cause of their mental health problems — such as cognitive biases and avoidance — which they can apply now and in the future.

In contrast, the effects of medication stop when the medication is discontinued. And unless psychiatric medications are reduced slowly and carefully, patients run the risk of experiencing withdrawal symptoms, such as a rebound increase in anxiety, irritability, and sleep problems.

Does behavioral medicine satisfy members’ needs?

Sometimes what people want and what’s best for them don’t always line up. Staying up late binge watching Netflix seems like a good idea in the moment, but will have a negative impact on us in the long-run. Eating steamed vegetables with every meal sounds great in theory, but may not be universally appealing. 

However, when it comes to behavioral medicine, everything lines up — people express a strong preference for it, and research shows it’s highly effective. In fact, one study showed that for people suffering from anxiety, those receiving psychotherapy (i.e., behavioral medicine) were more satisfied with their mental health care than those taking medication. In another study of antidepressant users, 22% decided to stop the medication without the input of their doctor, citing concerns about side effects, lack of benefit, or wanting to work on mental health without medication.

Convenient, consistent, scaleable

Yes, medications may have potential side effects. But if we consider the benefits of medication, it makes sense that they are the most common mental health treatment. Unlike traditional face-to-face care, they are convenient to access, deliver consistent outcomes, and are easy to scale. Fortunately, digital therapeutics can offer those same benefits while also providing people with the care they prefer. 

Because they are fully-digital, digital therapeutics — such as Sleepio for poor sleep and Daylight for worry and anxiety — can provide people with personalized behavioral medicine techniques in the exact moment of need, at scale. Digital therapeutics deliver convenient, consistent care with no serious side effects.

Rooted in evidence

But digital therapeutics aren’t just convenient, consistent, and scalable, they also work. There is robust evidence that proves behavioral medicine techniques delivered in a digital format can help people overcome even the most stubborn mental health problems. 

For example, Sleepio has been studied in over 30 peer-reviewed papers, representing more research participants than were included in studies for some of the most common psychiatric medications. Results from those studies demonstrate that Sleepio consistently reduces poor sleep symptoms and improves psychological well-being, after just six weeks, with effects lasting through a 48 week follow-up. Additionally, Daylight has been shown to help 71% of members move from clinical to non-clinical levels of worry and anxiety while also improving symptoms of low mood, sleep, and quality of life.

A safe and effective non-drug alternative for mental health

Recognizing the benefits of digital therapeutics doesn’t mean there isn’t still a role for psychiatric medication. Many people find medications effective, and it can also be helpful to combine medication with behavioral care. In some instances, medications can reduce symptoms that make it easier for people to start applying learned behavioral medicine skills.

Digital therapeutics aren’t meant to replace medication, but rather be a complement for people who want more choices. Just as poor mental health isn’t one-size-fits all, care shouldn’t be either. Offering your employees digital therapeutics provides them with safe and effective care options that they actually want.

Disclaimer: In accordance with FDA’s Current Enforcement Discretion Policy for Digital Health Devices for Psychiatric Disorders, for patients aged 18 years and older, who are followed by and diagnosed with Insomnia Disorder or Generalized Anxiety Disorder by a medical provider, Sleepio and Daylight can be made available as an adjunct to their usual medical care for Insomnia Disorder or Generalized Anxiety Disorder, respectively. Sleepio and Daylight do not replace the care of a medical provider or the patient’s medication. Sleepio and Daylight have not been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for these indications. Users are directed to not make any changes to their prescribed medication or other type of medical treatment without seeking professional medical advice.

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