60% of Americans Lack the Resilience to Cope With COVID-19

A Cigna survey of 16,500 Americans is showing mental health is in danger.

Posted Sep 29, 2020

In late July, right in the middle of the pandemic, the Cigna Resilience Index was used to conduct one of the largest assessments of resilience ever done in the U.S. The survey reached 5,000 parents, 5,000 of their children, 1,500 young adults, and 5,000 workers. Sadly, just over 60% of those surveyed reported few of the personal qualities and social supports we know make people resilient during a crisis.

The results suggest that Americans of all ages are at risk of mental and physical health problems, though that risk changes by age and employment status. For example, while 45% of children report high resilience, just 22% of 18- to 23-year-olds appear to have the strengths required to cope during these difficult times. That number is even worse for Black teens, with just 16% reporting high resilience scores. Among workers, only one-third of those employed during the pandemic described themselves as resilient, while only 1 in 6 employees who were laid off said they had the sources of support they need to survive, much less thrive.

Clearly, something is horribly wrong. We are experiencing a once-in-a-century crisis and despite all the economic and social capital we have accumulated, people are still saying that they lack the things they need to cope.

The consequences are serious. Children and their parents who participated in the survey and who lack resilience report worse mental health, more emotional and behavioral problems, more anxiety about school, lower academic performance and aspirations, and decreasing rates of self-worth and self-esteem. For parents, homeschooling was causing significant stress in over half of all families. Workers who scored lower on resilience were far more likely to feel dissatisfied with their jobs, perform worse at the tasks assigned to them, lack a sense of community in the workplace and say they are struggling to cope with the emotional and financial fallout from the pandemic.

As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, almost everyone surveyed said they were stressed by both the pandemic and the recent efforts to fight for social justice in America. That is not a bad thing, but it is a wake-up call to pay attention to the impact social change has on individual wellbeing. Two-thirds of the young adults in the survey were especially concerned by #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, and the splintering of their communities into polarized factions.

There was, fortunately, some good news in the numbers as well. Seventeen percent of children report getting the mental health supports they need. And those families that lived in the most racially and economically diverse communities recorded much higher scores on resilience, leading to the conclusion that diversity is essential for strong communities and strong families, especially during a pandemic. Likewise, workers in workplaces that encourage open communication between management and employees about the challenges facing the business showed much higher rates of mental health among workers.

Fortunately, there are initiatives underway to increase resilience. Cigna, like other businesses, are contributing to corporate social responsibility efforts to supplement government initiatives that have not reached far enough. While Cigna is experimenting with toll-free help lines for schools in Miami-Dade County and Nashville and expanding access to mental health services through a network of mental health clinicians, those efforts will need to be matched by communities and governments at all levels. That means turning down the divisive rhetoric which is ripping communities apart (at a time when we know diversity is a strength), supporting families financially and ensuring their children have access to education that is safe (which means ensuring every home has internet access), and encouraging workplace communication to bring employers and employees closer together with a shared mission (to get the economy working).

Finally, we are going to have to have difficult conversations about race, sexism, and the politics of hate. Results from the Cigna Resilience Index survey show that when these conversations occur, at all ages, the results are healthier, more capable people who are better prepared for stress.

Note: The Resilience Research Centre, which I direct, was part of the team conducting the study. Our validated measures of resilience (the CYRM and ARM) were also included.