May 1 marks the start of Mental Health Awareness Month. Given that almost half of us will suffer from stress, depression, anxiety or some other mental health conditions in our lifetime, one might question if we need the reminder. But this annual effort signifies a much-needed national movement to address one of the biggest barriers we face in combatting these issues: stigma.

Despite the high prevalence of mental health issues, 57% of those in need don’t receive treatment. Many employers have identified stigma as a factor. Consider the fact that only 25% of adults with symptoms believe people are caring and sympathetic to people with mental illness. How does this real fear of stereotyping negatively impact employees?

Employees may be afraid to admit, even to themselves, that they need support with mental health. Or they may not be aware that the reason they are suffering may be anxiety of depression. Those who do seek treatment may be afraid to leave the office on a regular basis for therapy appointments as their co-workers and employer may notice. Many fear negative repercussions of their employer finding out they experience a mental health condition. A 2017 survey shows that 31% of employees identify they would be afraid of being labeled as weak, and 22% fear it would impact their promotion opportunities. We won’t make progress until we begin to talk about and treat mental illness the way we do other chronic conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

How can employers make strides to reduce the shame, encourage treatment and create a stigma-free culture in the workplace?

· Talk about mental health as a natural extension of overall health, create opportunities for people to speak about these issues and offer support before it may even be needed.
· Educate employees so they can challenge misconceptions and mind their words. Encourage people to speak up when someone spreads a stereotype or inaccurate information and avoid disrespectful language such as “crazy” or “insane.”
· Build a culture of tolerance by participating in programs such as Stamp Out Stigma, an initiative to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and substance use disorders by challenging everyone to transform the dialogue on mental health and addiction through education and support. Another program is Right Direction, an initiative that offers free tools for employers to address depression in the workplace.
· Understand and honor the intent of the federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act which is to improve access to appropriate treatment for people suffering from mental health disorders and extend equal coverage to all aspects of health insurance plans.
· Make benefit design choices that make seeking care convenient and private (telehealth, seek care through primary care) to encourage people to use it; waive co-pays, etc.

Employers that have implemented similar strategies and focused on the mental health and wellbeing of their workforce have found that employees are more productive and innovative, generate higher sales, and lead to more profitable organizations. The bonus is lower healthcare cost, lower turnover, less sick leave and burnout.

As more companies act to improve the mental health and wellbeing of their workforce and we begin to normalize the conversation, more employees will be aware that they may have a condition and seek help. We’ve got a long way to go, but slowly and surely, we’re changing the way we think about mental illness and replacing the stigma with acceptance and support. Employers are in the ideal position to make an impact.

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Suzanne Delbanco

Suzanne Delbanco

Suzanne Delbanco is the executive director of Catalyst for Payment Reform, an independent, nonprofit corporation.