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March 29, 2015

Breaking the Silence on Mental Health

Summary:

Suicide and mental health need to be openly discussed in the workplace so that we can destigmatize the issues and prevent tragedies.

Photo Courtesy of David Foltz

Shh, it’s time for another round of “let’s discuss depression or suicide in the workplace.” That’s right, shh. After all, we aren’t supposed to discuss these issues. If we do, someone else may try to commit suicide. If we hush up the problem, maybe it will go away.

So, help me to understand why we tolerate this silence with mental illness and not with any other medical condition. I think it is because mental health is a bit more mysterious and scarier than most other conditions.

But mental health does account for a large percentage of the costs related to lost productivity ($51 billion). It generates direct costs of treatment of $26 billion a year[1] — and “absence, disability and lost productivity related to mental illness cost employers more than four times the cost of employee medical treatment.”[2]

We need to get over our fear and get the discussions out in the open. Only then will we have a chance to break the cycle.

The goal of breaking the silence is already occurring on the high school level and is showing results. I realize that this is a different population, teen-agers, but talking about it really does matter in prevention. This most recently occurred in a high school in Crystal Lake, Ill., after two teen-age friends took their lives. The school and community leaders made a point of getting information to other students about the warning signs so that they could possibly identify those in danger and encouraged parents to talk with their teens about their grief. Leaders also provided grief counselors onsite and gave the students different options for grieving, which included holding vigils, providing groups and allowing for other forums of expression.

This is an excellent model that can be adapted for the workplace in partnership with your employee assistance program (EAP). Here are some things employers can do for their workplaces after a suicide:

  • Openly discuss suicide and offer grief groups to anyone directly or indirectly involved with the people who took their lives. Make it okay to talk about the suicide. For more information on steps employers might take, go to “A Manager’s Guide to Suicide Postvention in the Workplace.”
  • Provide information about the warning signs so that employees can help identify others who might be at risk. Make sure that employees and their family members get information about resources that they can access for themselves, their family members or other co-workers. And stress the confidential nature of these sources. A great first step is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK (8255)).

The best defense, however, is a good offense. To encourage prevention, I suggest the following:

  • Create a “mental health/wellness” friendly workplace that involves openly discussing mental health and stress and making sure that employees know that there is confidential help available.
  • Provide employees and managers with training on signs of depression, anxiety, etc. and encourage them to seek help if they or a colleague is showing any of these signs.
  • Have your EAP visible through consistent promotional efforts using print, email and social media.
  • Make sure that the company’s benefits plans have good mental health coverage.

I have been lucky enough to have spent the last 36 years in the field helping individuals and organizations become more open to dealing with psychological issues that may interfere with their professional or personal growth. And I have been amazed at how successful treatment can be when the issue is confronted head-on.

As leaders in the insurance industry, those of you who subscribe to this blog are trusted advisers to the leadership and decision makers in organizations of all kinds. I therefore implore you to use these relationships to encourage them to face mental health in an open and forthright manner. Only when people are able to openly seek out help for mental health related concerns in the same manner that they seek out medical treatment for other issues will we be successful.

[1] Managed Care Magazine (2006, Spring) Depression in the Workplace Cost Employers Billions Each Year: Employers Take Lead in Fighting Depression.

[2] Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, A Mentally Healthy Workforce—It’s Good for Business, (2006), www.workplacementalhealth.org.

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About the Author

Bernie Dyme, a licensed clinical social worker, founded Perspectives, which provides workplace resource services to organizations internationally, including employee assistance programs (EAP), managed behavioral healthcare, organizational consulting, work/life and wellness.

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