Mental health may be one of the most important yet least understood aspects of our personal and professional lives. For decades, mental health was discussed only when an individual suffered from a severe mental illness. However, much as we diet and exercise in order to improve our physical health even when nothing is seriously wrong with our bodies, we must also begin to try to think of our mental health in a similar way.
When we better our mental outlook, we also better our emotional and intellectual experiences, leading to greater successes at home and at work.
What is mental health?
Mental health is a broad term that quantifies how an individual perceives and reacts to both the exterior world and their own internal emotional and intellectual landscape. If this sounds overwhelming, that’s because the brain is one of the most complex organs in the human body.
Despite centuries of research, we are still learning just how complicated the brain and its functions are. Emotional responses, which make up an important part of our health, also tend to vary widely from person to person, which makes this field of study both exciting and complex.
Although most of us are used to thinking of mental health only in terms of disorders, each person is affected by both their own mental fitness and the fitness of the people in their community. While most people take their good mental outlook for granted, the importance of this issue in all areas of our lives can’t be overstated.
When a mental disorder begins to significantly affect a person’s behaviors, the illness is diagnosed on a spectrum. Both major and minor mental illnesses are grouped into the All Mental Illness (AMI) category, while Severe Mental Illness (SMI) is reserved for diseases including schizophrenia-spectrum disorders, severe major depression, and severe bipolar disorder, among others. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that nearly one in five adults in the United States currently suffers from some form of mental illness.
Mental health is a broad term that quantifies how an individual perceives and reacts to both the exterior world and their own internal emotional and intellectual landscape.
If this figure surprises you, consider these other mental health facts: By a percentage of 22.3% to 15.1%, AMI was more frequently detected in women than men in the United States in 2017. Young adults, or those aged 18-25 years, were especially vulnerable to mental disability: 25.8% of them were affected. In contrast, 22.2% of adults between the ages of 26-49 years had AMI, while only 13.8% of those 50 years and older had a diagnosed condition.
However, while the popular imagination may be dominated by case studies of severe mental health disabilities, many adults suffer minor bouts of depression throughout their lives. These bouts tend to go undocumented because of social stigma or an inadequate health support infrastructure: many people do not seek treatment unless they are experiencing severe symptoms.
This is why the classification system is divided into AMI and SMI. In the same way that some people can put on a few extra pounds and be slightly overweight, it is very possible that you, a co-worker, or family member may be experiencing slightly less than ideal mental health. The symptoms may not seem severe, but if they remain untreated over time their effects can add up to lost productivity, less than stellar relationships, and a host of other problems that contribute to a general low quality of life.
Managing mental health
So how do we maintain our mental wellness? Luckily, there are numerous mental health tips that can keep you emotionally and intellectually fit. Whether you’re concerned about yourself, your family and friends, or your colleagues at the workplace, it’s helpful to familiarize yourself with the basic tools for ensuring a healthy and functional outlook.
Much as we weigh ourselves to get a sense of changes in our bodies, a test known as a mental health assessment is useful for getting an initial snapshot of our mental status. While these assessments can be casually taken online from various reputable journals, it’s best to formally schedule an assessment with a medical professional or through an employer’s health plan.
Generally speaking, the assessment seeks to identify potential problem areas with how you are perceiving your environment and reacting to it. The assessment attempts to gauge your emotional and intellectual responses to stimuli by measuring your anxiety, social isolation, and other metrics.
While every person occasionally has a bad day, sustained periods of unusual or altered moods can be signs of a problem. This is why it’s important to seek out a licensed medical professional who can properly evaluate your responses to the assessment.
A mental health assessment is useful for getting an initial snapshot of our mental status.
Some people may benefit from a light round of talk therapy, while others may be experiencing a significant chemical imbalance. Certain life events, such as pregnancy or a major trauma, can temporarily alter the chemicals in our bodies. Doctors can prescribe medication, including anti-anxiety treatments, to help address these imbalances.
For those who have already undergone a mental health assessment or have a previously diagnosed condition, there are numerous readily available mental health resources. If you are experiencing an emergency, many of these resources are available regardless of your geographical location, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Disaster Distress Helpline, or the Crisis Text Line.
For those who are trying to find an affordable, long-term health care plan, the Health Resources and Services Administration can help you find a provider in your area. The National Library of Medicine and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also provide detailed information on different types of care depending on your specific geographic region.
There are also numerous mental health organizations that are dedicated to providing tailored information for different conditions, including:
- National Institute of Mental Health
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
- The World Health Organization
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America
- International OCD Foundation
- Depression and BiPolar Support Alliance
- National Eating Disorders Association
If you don’t immediately see the resource you’re looking for, it’s important to understand that no matter what you or someone else may be experiencing, help is available. Don’t be afraid to use the contact information on these sites and ask for more specific information.
Addressing mental health stigma
Up until the last few decades, most of the conversations about mental health were shaped by response to major mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or dementia. Scientists, doctors, and researchers inadvertently couched much of the language in terms of disorders. More minor conditions or symptoms did not receive significant attention.
As a result, the concept of “mental health” became interchangeable with “mental illness.” This led to a stigma for those who needed the equivalent of a mental bandaid but were instead forced to suffer an unnecessary infection due to lack of treatment.
This unfortunate mental health stigma coincided with U.S. government policies in the 1980s that led to many previously hospitalized individuals with severe mental illness being removed from treatment due to a policy of budget reductions or “deinstitutionalization.” Because these former patients lacked sufficient care, they frequently became chronically homeless, helping to fuel both a housing and mental health crisis that society has only recently begun to redress.
Thankfully, the notion of regularly seeing a therapist in order to deal with feelings of anxiety or alienation became far more publicly acceptable in the 21st century. A number of popular TV shows, including The Sopranos (1999-2007), began to regularly feature their protagonists in therapy. Instead of being labeled “crazy” or “unhinged,” these television protagonists were revealed to be relatively neurotypical people who needed and sought specific care. Seeing a therapist began to seem less like undertaking a moon landing and more like going to the dentist.
Workplaces that take a proactive approach and make clear that mental health matters will not only eradicate stigma but also have a much healthier, more productive workforce.
Although public perceptions and access to mental health services have improved in the subsequent years, there still remains a stigma surrounding frank discussions of this topic, especially in the United States. The U.S.’ cultural emphasis on individualism and self-reliance can occasionally become entwined with a refusal to accept help of any kind, even when it is desperately needed. Because mental health services in the U.S. tended to be restricted to asylums or other institutionalized settings up until the last few decades, the notion of seeking “help” carried a life-changing connotation.
Thankfully, mental health services are now far more integrated into the fabric of most ordinary American communities. Most workplaces offer health insurance that has some type of mental health coverage; others offer time-off including specific “mental health days” to indicate to employees that this aspect of their wellness is valued.
Overcoming stigma in the workplace does present significant challenges. Up until recently, employees could be fired or laid-off if their employers knew that they suffered from a mental illness. Unfortunately, many of these so-called fireable “illnesses” were often a product of political pressures. During the mid-20th century, homosexuality was classified as a mental illness, leading many employees to lose their jobs when their sexual orientation was discovered.
Although these discriminatory practices are not legally allowed today, employees often are fearful that they will lose their position or otherwise suffer consequences if they admit they suffer from chronic depression, bipolar syndrome, or another condition.
Luckily, there is a solution. Workplaces that take a proactive approach and make clear that mental health matters will not only eradicate stigma but also have a much healthier, more productive workforce. Those workplaces that do not openly address the issue or rely on outdated tropes of what mental health is will paradoxically suffer more incidents because the stigma ultimately obscures the problem.
Mental health in the workplace
According to the CDC, employers who directly address mental health in the workplace ultimately save money on health care costs for both the business and their employees. This is partially because workplace wellness programs help identify individuals who may be suffering and can subsequently offer them treatment before the problem becomes more serious.
In terms of productivity, early treatment also offers businesses financial incentives: employees who are suffering from depression have trouble completing physical tasks 20% of the time, while those who are attempting to complete cognitive tasks have difficulties 35% of the time. Troublingly, only 57% of employees who report experiencing moderate depression and 40% of those who report severe depression receive treatment.
This is especially shocking when you consider that even when other health problems are factored in, such as smoking and obesity, employees at a risk for depression had the highest health care costs during the three years after their initial risk assessment.
As with many systemic issues in the United States, mental health problems disproportionately affect people of color. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 28.6% of adults affected by Any Mental Illness (AMI) were of two or more races. Contrast this with white adults, who comprised 20.4% of the total affected by AMI, but made up approximately 72% of the U.S. population. Asian adults were affected by AMI at a rate of 14.5%, which is almost triple the rate of their 5.6% representation of the U.S. population.
When affected employees remain untreated, they often have a harder time remaining with the company. Turnover can lead to a less diverse workforce and hamper the success of inclusion initiatives, which consequently undermines the success of the organization as a whole. The amount of time and money spent recruiting diverse candidates should not be wasted because the company was unable to help their employees find adequate treatment.
For human resource professionals, understanding the basics of mental health law is also vital to creating a welcoming and productive workplace. For example, does your workplace comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in all its particulars? In the case of the ADA, the National Network notes that the terms “mental illness” and “psychiatric disability” are often used interchangeably. Legal protections for those suffering from either term prevent employers from discriminating against them in matters of hiring, promotion, and training, among other areas.
The ADA is written in support of the fact that people often recover from their condition, and debunks the myth that a person with a mental illness can’t hold a stressful job. Crucially, the research surrounding accommodating mental disabilities in the workplace stresses that “no one size fits all,” which is vital for employers who are attempting to create a successful working environment. Understanding each employee’s needs and how to best meet them is the difference between an average company and an exceptional one.
Employers should also familiarize themselves with the concept of neurodiversity. No two brains are exactly alike, and many individuals can exhibit unusual behaviors, such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), dyslexia, and autism, that may not be present in a neurotypical workforce. None of these conditions is in of itself a mental illness, but they can initially make an employee an “odd fit.” Understanding how to create an environment that celebrates all kinds of diversity—including neurodiversity—will help clear up misunderstandings and create a highly productive and profitable endeavor.
Supporting employee mental health
Creating a responsive and supportive environment in the workplace has several facets. Traditional health care plans and employee assistance programs (EAP) provide a solid foundation for supporting employee mental health. As discussed above, many health care plans offer some form of coverage for talk therapy, medication, or specific options for taking time off. Employee assistance programs tend to be based within the organization, and offer customized assistance to employees including free health assessments, online mental health counseling, referrals to therapists, and follow-ups in response to trauma or other incidents.
Because “no one size fits all,” many companies are choosing to provide far more tailored and comprehensive mental health support by joining with mental health partners. These mental health partners offer a wide range of services to address everything from an employee’s social anxiety to clinical care.
An excellent mental health partner does not take a guess-and-check approach but instead bases their care on data and accuracy. Treatment is conceptualized as an individual journey that has many nuances. Instead of overwhelming an individual who is attempting to make a positive change in their life with information that does not apply directly to them, a mental health partner applies their extensive medical knowledge and tailors a program to suit the individual.
Although this approach may sound obvious in hindsight, it has taken decades to reach a point where mental health can be discussed frankly in the workplace. Instead of having a process that is cloaked in shame, mental health professionals can now concentrate on healing their patients. This more open, informed approach ultimately works best for employers, too. Embracing mental health and encouraging employees to monitor their own fitness should be a pillar of every organization’s company culture.
An excellent mental health partner does not take a guess-and-check approach but instead bases their care on data and accuracy.
What’s the easiest way to do this? For human resource professionals, raising awareness of World Mental Health Day can be a beneficial strategy. Without the backing of the company, many employees may feel hesitant to broach the topic of their mental health. Mentioning World Mental Health Day provides a literal global entrée to discuss what constitutes a healthy frame of mind without singling out any individual employee.
In tandem, HR professionals should encourage employees to take self-assessment tests, distribute informative materials on the symptoms of poor mental health, and schedule the occasional workshop or seminar for stress management techniques. By establishing a company culture of openness and acceptance, minor problems can be addressed before they become major concerns.
In the same way that all employees are notified where the first aid kit is in the office, the company’s mental health policies and resources should also be made easily accessible. No one should suffer in shame or silence.
Finding a mental health partner
As an organization grows in size, so too does the scope of its needs. Finding excellent customized mental health care can be challenging at an individual level, let alone for the diverse workforce of an entire company.
With its commitment to tailored, data-driven care, Spring Health can support your organization with mental health care benefits for a global workforce. Spring Health offers the dual benefit of extensive experience with a focused, individual approach. We also provide each employee with the encouragement to complete their journey, which is a vital part of the healing process. We believe everyone should be given a chance at renewal and hope. Request a demo to see more of what we can offer for your team.