At the 2016 DMEC Annual Conference, a panel discussed strategies to raise awareness of the stigma associated with mental health and how to address it. The panel was:
- Donna Hardaker – Director, Wellness Works – Mental Health America of California
- Heather Holladay – Integrated Health Manager – Pacific Gas & Electric
- Rich Paul – SVP Employer Strategy & Development – Beacon Health Options
- Bryan Bass – SVP of Disability & Absence Practice & Compliance – Sedgwick
In a recent survey, over 35% of respondents cited fear of peer responses as a reason they would hesitate to seek treatment for mental health issues. When one-in-five people are dealing with mental health issues, that is a large number of people who fear the stigma associated with them. It is estimated that less than one-third of people with mental health issues actually seek treatment and fear of stigma is a significant factor in this.
People are afraid to talk about mental health issues because they are afraid others will think they are unstable or undependable. Everyone has some form of unconscious bias and mental health issues are an area where this bias is often present. Those who don’t have the issues tend to judge those who do. “Why don’t they just go get treatment?” is a common response. But things are not that simple. The employee may not know they have a mental health issue, or they may not recognize that the problems they are experiencing in life are caused by a mental health issue.
A good example of the stigma is the phrase “commit suicide”. Commit is a word associated with crime. You don’t say someone “commits cancer” if they die from cancer. But if someone dies from suicide, it is something that they have done wrong.
Mental health issues can lead to drug and alcohol additions, which creates an entirely different set of stigma. Mental health professional working with patients will often not address addiction issues because they feel this is outside their area of expertise. They want to refer the patient to someone else, but that person may not want to start treating with another medical professional.
40-60% of people who die from suicide have seen their personal physician within 30 days of their death. The stigma of mental health issues also extends into the medical community and too often physicians are not properly trained to recognize mental health issues.
One of the most effective ways to reduce stigma of mental health is through contact education. This involves contact with those experiencing mental health issues. Hearing people talk about their experiences with mental health issues helps others better understand those issues and it also helps people to recognize the issues they may be having themselves. It’s important that those talking about mental health issues have positive stories to tell around overcoming obstacles. Recovery and hope are stories that help to reduce stigma. Stories that simply evoke feelings of sympathy tend to reinforce stigma.
Peer support groups can be a good tool to help employees overcome drug addiction issues. Showing that people you know are dealing with the same issues you are helps people seek treatment. It also helps overcome stigma when people understand the issues their friends and co-workers are dealing with. Developing these peer support groups is very challenging because the first step is people being willing to publicly disclose the mental health or addiction issues they are dealing with. These are fairly low-cost programs to administer and they can be extremely effective if you can get them up and running. Some are concerned about legal issues associated with peer support groups. You must work closely with your legal team on these peer groups to ensure the peer counselors receive adequate training so that they recognize high-risk behaviors and other things that could create liability for your company.
An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) can be a tremendous tool to help your employees overcome mental health issues. A good EAP program will provide employees with assistance in a variety of areas, not simply getting medical treatment or mental health care. Employees should be able to utilize the EAP directly, but co-workers or supervisors should be able to reach out to the EAP and suggest that someone needs assistance.
The three essential elements to overcoming stigma in the workplace are leadership, education and a personal dimension. Company leaders must recognize the issue and promote solutions. Those educational solutions are the next step. Finally, the personal dimension is so important because that is where things like peer groups come into action.