When we think of mental disorders, we usually imagine a solitary experience, an individual suffering alone, in silence.
And if you haven’t experienced it yourself, it’s easy to think that mental health issues don’t concern you. You may believe there’s little you can do to improve the situation.
But the effects of mental illness ripple far and wide beyond the afflicted person, to their family, friends, community, society, and the world.
The theme for World Mental Health Awareness Day 2020 — “Mental Health for All, Greater Investment – Greater Access” — reminds us that each one of us has a stake and responsibility in safeguarding mental health.
World Mental Health Awareness Day, which falls on October 10th, 2020, is a day designated to educate the public about mental health issues and to advocate for mental health.
By celebrating World Mental Health Awareness Day, we recognize that mental health is not only a human right for all but also a responsibility for everyone. No matter how big or small your sphere of influence is, whether in your personal or professional life, there’s something you can do to protect mental health, both for yourself and for others.
Mental Health and COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has focused our attention on the importance of physical health. It seems everyone has become an expert in viral infections and physical disease. Or at least, we’ve been closely listening to what the actual experts say.
At the same time, the pandemic has shed light on the need to go beyond the physical and to safeguard mental health as well.
That’s because our physical and mental well-being are closely intertwined. In May 2020, the Washington Post reported that the pandemic was pushing the United States into another health crisis: a mental health crisis.
This mental health crisis is driven by the effects of the pandemic itself. Many have been living with the fear of catching a fatal or debilitating illness. Many have had to care for sick family members at home. Or, they’ve had to wait helplessly, unable to visit sick family in hospital, including intensive care. Others have experienced the deaths of family or friends in a short period — many without being able to say goodbye.
Still others have lost their jobs or had their hours drastically reduced. Some business owners have had to close their doors and let go of employees. All of us have been living in uncertainty, our routines disrupted, and coping with rapid changes in our personal and professional lives.
All this has caused levels of anxiety, stress, depression, suicide, and substance abuse to rise.
In August 2020, a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 53% of adult Americans reported the following negative effects of the pandemic on their mental health:
- 36% said they had difficulty sleeping
- 32% reported difficulty eating
- 12% said their alcohol consumption or substance use had increased
- 12% said chronic conditions they had before the pandemic had gotten worse because of worrying and stressing out over the coronavirus
Public health measures that were set in place to protect people’s physical health have had the undesirable effect of hurting their mental well-being. Isolation, for example, has had a negative impact on people’s mental health. Kaiser poll data showed that people who were sheltering in place were more likely to report negative mental health effects (47%) than those who weren’t in lockdown (37%).
This could be a particular concern for the United States. In 2017, 18.9% of adults in the US had mental illness. (National Institute of Mental Health).
Nevertheless, the mental health crisis is as much global a concern as the COVID-19 pandemic is. Mental illness is predicted to become the leading cause of disease worldwide by 2029 (Sowers, Rowe, & Clay, 2009). It’s apt, therefore, that World Mental Health Awareness Day 2020 is calling for greater investment in and access to mental health.
The Costs of Mental Illness
Mental disorders are far from being a private matter. They’ve got personal, social, and economic costs.
On the personal level, an individual with mental illness soon finds that their relationships with family, friends, and co-workers deteriorate. They may become unable to perform their jobs and lose their means of livelihood. They also face social stigma. Their human rights may be violated because they’re often blamed for their mental health disorders. Treatment, if received, may have many side effects, including suicidal thoughts.
Mental illness also places a burden on the sufferer’s family. Caring for the person with a mental disorder is a heavy responsibility, not to mention the emotional burden of living with someone who may be unstable and unpredictable. Family members and friends may blame themselves as well as bear the brunt of emotional abuse. Treating the illness, which is often protracted, may strain the family’s resources.
The rest of society carries some of the costs of mental illness as well. Companies suffer from increased absenteeism and reduced productivity. Health care costs increase. Communities and countries must provide mental health care and make up for the loss of income and loss of lives.
With employees spending most of their waking hours at work, the importance of mental health in the workplace can’t be overlooked. Mental illness, such as depression, is one of the leading causes of absenteeism. The World Health Organisation estimates that the cost of productivity loss due to depression and anxiety globally is $1 trillion every year.
It makes sense, then, that providing mental health benefits is both an effective and cost-effective strategy for employers. These benefits are estimated to have an ROI of up to 400%.
Examples of mental health benefits include:
- Health insurance that covers mental health treatments
- Employee Assistance Program or short-term counselling
- Bereavement leave
- Stress reduction at work, which can include paid Mental Health Holidays
With creativity and resourcefulness, companies don’t need a huge budget to provide mental health benefits to employees. Something as simple as a 15-minute daily meditation break can make a big difference in everyone’s mental well-being (with physical benefits as well).
World Mental Health DayWhy Provide Better Mental Health Benefits? (Mental Health Awareness 2019)
Barriers to Mental Health Care Access
While we hear a lot of reports about the lack of access to physical health care, the situation is even worse when it comes to mental health care. Mental health isn’t recognized as a human right, much less an essential aspect of wellness, especially in countries with limited resources. This leads to several barriers that keep many from getting the mental health care they need.
The barriers to mental health care access include:
1. Social Stigma
Those who are suffering may not seek mental health treatment in the first place. That’s because the stigma of the stigma associated with mental illness. Some people may blame the individual who has a mental disorder, seeing it as a lack of self-control, mental weakness, or being plain weird. And so, the person with a mental illness may be ashamed to admit they need helps and resort to suffering in silence instead. The rest of society sweeps mental health issues under the rug and refuses to confront them.
2. Lack of Education
The social stigma of mental disorders reflects the lack of mental health awareness and education among the general public. There’s a lack of understanding of what mental illness is and the importance of getting treatment. Many affected individuals remain untreated because they don’t even recognize that they needed it. Many believe it’s something that’ll go away or resolve on its own. Or they may think that they can fix the problem themselves.
3. High Costs
The lack of resources is another barrier to mental health care access. Not all health insurance plans cover mental health care services, and psychiatric treatment and medications are too expensive for some to cover out-of-pocket. Individuals who pay privately for their health insurance may opt out of mental health care coverage due to its prohibitive costs. This, in turn, is caused by the limited availability of medications and health professionals in the mental health field.
If mental health is covered in a person’s health insurance, it’s usually part of a group plan with the individual’s employer. If they lose their job, they lose their health care coverage as well. And patients with mental health illnesses, more often than not, don’t receive disability benefits.
4. Lack of Mental Health Policies
These barriers could be addressed if more countries had effective policies on mental health care. Comprehensive mental health policies and plans are needed to coordinate action and to ensure resources are available, especially in localities that need them most. These can also reduce the inequalities and inequities in access to mental health care.
But studies have found that one-third of countries don’t have mental health care policies, and 40% of those that do have them haven’t updated these policies to integrate developments in the mental health field. It’s no wonder then that most countries don’t allocate as many resources to mental health as they do to other health programs.
Increasing Mental Health Care Access in the Workplace
Aside from offering mental health benefits, employers have other ways to increase mental health care access in the workplace. Here are just a few ideas:
1. Educate Your Staff
Make sure managers and employees have information and training on mental health disorders. This is helpful on several levels. It helps everyone recognize mental illness, so they know when and how to seek help if they need it. Education also helps reduce the stigma of mental disorders. Besides, it enables people in the organization to support and show compassion towards colleagues who may have a mental illness.
There are many ways to educate your staff about mental health. For instance, you can invite mental health professionals to deliver online webinars. If you’ve got a company newsletter, devote one section to mental health topics. You can also enroll managers in mental health awareness training developed specifically for leaders.
These articles are an excellent place to start:
World Mental Health DayWhy Provide Better Mental Health Benefits? (Mental Health Awareness 2019)
HealthHow to Support Mental Health in the Workplace
Careers10 Tips for Dealing With Difficult Changes in Work & Life
HealthHow to Practice Mindfulness at Work (Guide to Better Focus)
2. Provide Mental Health Care for People Between Jobs
Employees lose their mental health coverage when they lose their jobs. And so, if your company is laying off employees, consider continuing to give them access to mental health benefits even after they leave the organization. An example is by making the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) available to former employees to help them cope with joblessness. Employers can extend EAP to former employees either indefinitely or until they find their next job, depending on the cost and budget available.
3. Help Employees Connect
If your staff works from home, some employees may be feeling isolated. And we’ve seen how isolation has negative mental health effects. So, give employees many opportunities to connect with each other, albeit virtually. For example, set up employee hangouts on web conferencing platforms. This could be a Friday happy hour when staff can decompress, relax, and talk about things not related to work. Efforts like these — no matter how small — can help employees who work from home to feel less isolated and maintain a more positive attitude.
4. Cultivate a Culture of Diversity and Tolerance
Set up policies, programs, and procedures to increase diversity and tolerance in the workplace. When you fight homophobia, racism, and other forms of discrimination, you create a culture of tolerance for everyone, including individuals who have mental disorders.
Mental Health, a Right and a Responsibility
Recognizing mental health as a human right means the onus is on all of us to protect it within each one’s sphere of influence.
At the highest level, governments should have policies and budgets in place to increase access to mental health services. Where Universal Health Care is available, mental health care should be included. Government mental health policies should be also be constantly updated to reflect new developments in mental health.
Employers also play a big role in making mental health care accessible to its workforce, both during their employment and afterwards. Organizations can educate everyone in the workplace about mental health to increase awareness, encourage the use of mental health services, and reduce the stigma of mental illness. Employers can also provide mental health benefits and institute programs to overcome some of the barriers to mental health care access in the workplace.
Finally, you and I have our own roles as individuals. We can educate ourselves on mental health issues. We can take the steps to take care of our own mental health, and to seek support and treatment if we need it. We can be sensitive to the mental well-being of everyone we interact with, and we can extend compassion to those who have mental illness.