Mental illness is a growing crisis in America, affecting one in five adults in a given year, 60 percent of whom don’t seek help. Unfortunately, an unwillingness to seek help is due in part to the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness and the limited availability of mental health caregivers and treatment centers.
May is “Mental Health Awareness Month,” designated to call attention to the nation’s mental health crisis. For employers it makes good business sense to pay attention, given the high direct and indirect costs of unrecognized, untreated, and inappropriately treated mental and behavioral health conditions.
Beyond the human toll, mental illness is disastrous for businesses. Concerns include lost productivity, increased missed work days, greater risk for physical illness, potential liability and discrimination issues, and higher healthcare costs.
When tackling the issue, most businesses are unsure where to start. Many employers offer mental health benefits on par with what employees receive for physical healthcare, as well as employee assistance programs and other resources. However, because of the stigma, lack of understanding about their own symptoms, or fear of losing their jobs, employees often don’t seek the care they need or are unaware of employee assistance programs and other support services. As a result, many workers try to deal with the mental, emotional, and social issues on their own.
Recognizing employers’ need for help with mental health challenges in the workplace, the Dallas-Fort Worth Business Group on Health, in partnership with Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, invited a group of ten DFW employers to participate in a Mental Health Advisory Group to explore this issue. Depression was the initial focus, as this condition affects over 40 million working Americans, costs employers $44 billion in lost productivity, and is the leading cause of disability.
The advisory group met to discuss mental health challenges, such as stigma, confusion about symptoms, ineffective/inadequate treatment, lack of data on direct and indirect costs, and communication gaps. The employers set three priorities and recommendations for immediate action:
- Increase company-wide awareness and understanding of what depression is and how it differs from stress and other problems.
- Address the stigma of depression so that it is perceived as a REAL condition, just like other health conditions.
- Encourage mental health providers to adopt best practices and clinical guidelines in diagnosis and treatment of depression to achieve lasting improvement.
Several of the participating employers are already taking specific action steps, including distributing educational materials to their employees about depression symptoms and treatment, implementing employee awareness and sensitivity training programs, and communicating the availability and confidentiality of their employee assistance programs.
These are hopeful beginning steps, but opportunities abound for tackling some of the bigger challenges, such as:
- redesigning benefits to facilitate access to appropriate and effective mental health treatment
- setting expectations for health plans and vendors for better outcomes and better access to high-quality mental health services
- bridging gaps in care by working with health plans and vendors to ensure integration across the continuum of primary, acute, and chronic mental health care management
- creating a workplace culture where mental illness isn’t stigmatized and seeking help is encouraged and supported
Helping DFW employers address mental health issues will continue to be a focus of our non-profit this year and beyond. We’re working to increase employer awareness and understanding of the prevalence and impact of mental illness in the workplace, educate employers about effective mental health benefit strategies, and share best practices of employers that are further along in the journey.
We’ll only see progress in our community once we shine a light on the issues and continue the dialogue with employers about solutions for improving the mental and physical well-being of our employees and their family members.
Marianne Fazen, PhD, is the executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth Business Group on Health.