Weekly Editorial

Prioritizing Mental Well-Being

Written By Rob Kirkbride, Editor-in-chief, OI Publications • November 27, 2023

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When we discuss health and wellness in society, we rarely consider mental health as part of the equation. Mental health is an issue that is uncomfortable for many to talk about, which means we tend to sweep these under the rug until they become so huge that we are forced to deal with them. Mental health is stigmatized in American society even though nearly 1 in 5 adults will have a diagnosable mental health condition in any given year, according to Mental Health America.

The organization is the nation’s leading national nonprofit dedicated to the promotion of mental health, well-being, and illness prevention. It found that 46% of Americans will meet the criteria for a diagnosable mental health condition sometime in their life, and half of those people will develop conditions by the age of 14.

There are 50 million U.S. adults with mental illness, meaning nearly 20% have some form of mental illness.

The pandemic certainly hasn’t helped with mental health issues. In a 2021 study by the National Institutes of Health, nearly half of Americans surveyed reported recent symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder, and 10% of respondents felt their mental health needs were not being met. Rates of anxiety, depression, and substance use disorder increased since the beginning of the pandemic. And people who have mental illnesses or disorders and then get COVID-19 are more likely to die than those who don’t have mental illnesses or disorders.

Mental illness is not solved when an employee enters the workplace, which means business owners are struggling to support employees with mental health issues as well. According to Mental Health America, rates of stress and distraction remain high across all workplaces. And while mental health awareness is increasing, the likelihood of employees seeking out workplace resources still isn’t great and strongly correlates with managerial support.

That means if employees with mental health issues feel supported by their employer, they are much more likely to seek help. Mental health is a deeply personal issue and many people who suffer from mental illness do not want to talk about it.

Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a medical condition, just like heart disease or diabetes. And mental health conditions are treatable.

Yet is is an issue that we seem to want to sweep under the rug in the U.S. Our cities — especially those on the coasts — are dealing with a surge in homelessness. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, about 30% of people who are chronically homeless have mental health conditions. About 50% have co-occurring substance use problems.

I’m no healthcare expert, but there are many resources to help employers and employees deal with mental health in the workplace. Premise Health outlines five specific ways employers can help employees take care of their mental health:

Check in with employees. Short discussions with a colleague about how things are going can go a long way. Through time, connections form, comfort level increases, and trust builds, allowing for an open conversation around mental health.

Listen and practice empathy. Acknowledge the challenges others are facing. Before jumping to conclusions, employers must be willing to understand the “why” first. Listening is not trying to solve a problem but simply being present and creating space for a person to share their thoughts. Pause before responding so that you allow yourself the time to listen and digest their words.

Normalize talking about mental health. Encourage others to share their feelings in a safe, inclusive environment. It is crucial employees feel comfortable and never ashamed, judged, or embarrassed for discussing how they’re doing. Work is important, but employees cannot perform well if they don’t care for themselves first.

Provide access to programs. Be prepared for the conversation about mental health and have solutions in mind. Employers can provide a variety of resources such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), mental health coverage, or access to wellness programs helping with stress management and relaxation.

Offer behavioral health benefits. Providing benefits that support mental health needs gives employees the right resources and tools to get help when and where needed. When employers provide behavioral health resources to their employees, they are healthier individuals, and the organization’s culture is healthier, too.

When we all come to the understanding that mental health is a major issue and is treatable, we can begin to treat it with the humanity and compassion it deserves.

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