Dr. Russ Morfitt is the Co-Founder and Chief Psychology Officer of Learn to Live. He earned his Ph.D. in Psychology at the University of Minnesota and has been helping people live better lives for more than 20 years, first through treating anxiety in underserved populations in his clinical practice and, in recent years, through delivering the same Cognitive Behavioral Therapy concepts digitally. Dr. Russ uses his experience and creativity to infuse each program with his natural compassion and radical commitment to evidence-based services. He leads Learn to Live’s clinical team and plays a key role in developing each program. For Dr. Russ, Learn to Live means bringing the life-changing benefits of CBT to everyone who needs it.
What unique challenges does COVID-19 present to mental health?
For any of us to remain balanced and optimistic, we count on the world around us being predictable and expect that we will have the resources and social supports that we need. This pandemic has stripped away predictability, so we don’t know what to expect for our careers, our opportunities, or the shapes of our lives. For many, our finances are in doubt and our time is getting reallocated to helping educate our kids or trying to find a job. And the loneliness epidemic that was already in place before the pandemic is multiplied, leaving us vulnerable to depression and related problems. The broad swath of stressors plus unpredictability plus isolation puts us at risk of even greater anxiety and depression than we experienced pre-COVID.
What were the key lessons you learned during your research into the mental and social effects of past viral illnesses like SARS and MERS?
When we reviewed the history and research of these events, we observed that, during the SARS and MERS pandemics, fear, stress, isolation and loss conspired to create a breeding ground for depression and anxiety — even PTSD — both during and after the crisis. We saw that the public often did not know what to expect or how to cope with the losses they experienced, people who were ill and quarantined were afraid and alone, and healthcare providers were stressed, overtaxed, and sometimes gave up.
We saw that there was a clear, unmet need for mental health resources that would enable the public, sufferers, and providers the tools to manage the inevitable uncertainty. There was a void — little training for how to deal with worry and loss or how to increase resilience in the face of so many difficulties. Even though methods that could buffer people from the risk of depression, anxiety, and even PTSD existed, they were not available to the masses.
How can we all take care of our mental health and what can we do to help others?
It is important for almost all of us to take steps to enhance our general self-care, learn a few strategies for managing our emotions, and stay connected with others. The research is clear that all three of these are important for being resilient and avoiding being stuck.
The self-care part is probably obvious. During stressful times, it is especially important to eat healthy meals, even though grazing on convenient-but-less-healthy snacks might be tempting. Getting sleep is important for optimal adjustment as well, even though many of us have less structure in our days and nights recently. And getting exercise continues to be key for healthy bodies and for depression prevention.
We live in an era in which solid science has confirmed the effectiveness of a number of strategies for preventing or managing stress, depression, anxiety, and other concerns. Now any of us can learn how to identify and examine our depression-inducing or anxiety-perpetuating thoughts and replace them with more productive ones. And we can learn how to systematically face our fears to reduce the grip of anxiety or how to stay actively engaged in the world to reduce our risk of depression.
And since we seem to be wired to need one another, staying connected is vital. We certainly have to be more creative to keep linked to our family or friend network during COVID, but it can be done. This is such an important time to check-in with each other…and that may be the most important thing we can do for one another.
Are you optimistic that the growing popularity of telehealth and digital health tools will lead to more people getting mental health care?
Absolutely. Accessibility to behavioral health resources has always been a problem, but telehealth and digital health tools are breaking down the barriers. Telehealth can increase access because there’s no need to drive to the clinic and less hassle. Digital CBT tools like ours eliminate the drive as well, but also bypass stigma, increase flexibility, and always provide evidence-based methods and tools, so there’s growing interest. In fact, we see that almost 80% of our Learn to Live members—people now using digital services—have not received therapy in the past, so they were not seeking help until digital options became available.
What makes Learn to Live’s approach to mental health care unique?
Learn to Live is radically committed to providing evidence-based strategies, delivering them in a form that can be readily digested and practiced, and finding ways to reach those who may not otherwise ask for help. So we do a lot of hard work behind the scenes, building programs and services supported by the research, then shedding the clinical speak and using common language in programs that are crafted with warm videos and disarming animations. We carefully select and train master’s-degreed member coaches and offer it all on a platform that maximizes privacy and security.
Our members have the unique opportunity to learn about themselves at the outset with a broad-based assessment with guided interpretation. That means anyone can move from “I wonder if I am struggling with something?” to “Oh, this is what you call what I am experiencing.” That self-information alone can be highly impactful for population health, but then the algorithm recommends a program or sequence of programs so that anyone can immediately take steps to learn evidence-based tools immediately. If they want to have a master’s-degreed coach providing support and accountability, it’s available. For most of our members, all that is available at no cost to them because their employer, university, or health plan has made it available.
Finally, we make it easy for the sponsoring employer, college, or plan to offer our services. The simplicity of our delivery model allows Learn to Live services to be turned on for a new large client in days or weeks, not months. Our creative and client service teams make it easy to get the word out to potential users with sensitivity, nuance, and sometimes a bit of fun. Since we are intensely focused on data to make everything better, it is natural for us to share our data in clear, actionable reports, so utilization and value are always clear.