Combating Mental Health Stigma

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Even though it is estimated that nearly one in five adults in the U.S. will experience a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, there remains significant stigma around this type of health condition. In fact, a 2014 survey of employers by the Disability Management Employer Coalition found that stigma surrounding mental and behavioral health issues in the workplace has never been higher. In 2012, 7% of employer respondents believed stigma surrounding mental health disorders was on the rise. This figure rose to 24% in the 2014 survey.

Employers that offer group health plans to their employees may be familiar with the mental health parity rules that requires covered mental health benefits to be treated the same as benefits for other medical and surgical benefits. While this was certainly a step in the right direction, it has not helped to reduce mental health stigma. Thankfully, a diverse array of businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies are working to raise awareness about mental health and reduce the stigma associated with mental health conditions.

More than 4,000 corporate employers participate in The Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, a program of the American Psychiatric Foundation that “promotes the business case for investing in quality mental healthcare that includes early recognition, access to care and effective treatment.” According to the Partnership, more and more employers now understand that untreated mental illness increases employee absenteeism and healthcare costs and reduces productivity. Although these employers may recognize that mental health care works and is cost effective, Clare Miller, the Partnership’s Director, has stated that the most challenging part of mental health in the corporate world is getting rid of the stigma, as employees often fear that they will be treated differently if they disclose their condition or reach out to their employer for help.

One recent initiative that is seeking to change American attitudes towards mental health is the Campaign to Change Direction. The Campaign grew out of a panel convened after the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, CT, and was officially launched on March 4, 2015. At the Campaign’s launch event a physician from Onalaska, WI, Todd Mahr, spoke about his daughter’s struggles with bipolar depression and said that the stigma surrounding this cause of her death “was overwhelming.” The Campaign asks individuals to pledge to learn recognize the five signs of emotional suffering in themselves and others: withdrawal, agitation, hopelessness, decline in personal care, and change in personality.

A program with similar goals but more intensive training is Mental Health First Aid. Mental Health First Aid is an eight hour course that teaches participants how to help someone who is developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis. The program was founded in 2001 by an Australian nurse, and is now coordinated in the U.S. by the National Council for Behavioral Health, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the Missouri Department of Mental Health. A recent editorial in the Dallas Morning News praised the program as a “stigma buster” that can help the City of Dallas meet its goal to “erase the unjust stigma of mental illness.”

Even if your company’s health plan already includes mental health parity, consider taking other steps to improve your workplace culture by reducing mental health stigma.