May 2021 was Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness of those living with mental or behavioral health issues, including millions of Americans, and to help reduce the stigma so many experience. Hospitals and health systems play an important role in providing behavioral health care and helping patients find resources available in their community. During May, National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) joined the national movement to raise awareness about mental health. NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. It fights stigma, provides support, educates the public, and advocates for policies that support people with mental illness and their families.
But even once the month is over, mental health awareness needs to remain top of mind for talent development professionals.
Training Professionals as Workplace Mental Health First RespondersWhile periods of stress can pass on their own—when an individual seeks help or the situation improves—there are other times that worsen, the stress and feelings of hopelessness and isolation intensify. Such instances can lead to an individual having suicidal or seemingly hostile thoughts or actions.
On February 19, 2020, senior writer and editor for the Association for Talent Development Patty Gaul pointed out, “To help address mental health issues, organizations can create a culture of work-life balance, provide employee assistance programs with resources to deal with stressors, and offer screening tools that suggest treatment measures.”
Likewise, in the May 2019 TD magazine article “Be a Mental Health First Responder,” author Mike Tripp issued a call to action for training professionals to play an active and focused role in mental health intervention and safe learning communities. Tripp mentioned that according to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five US adults lives with a mental illness. Some sources, such as Johns Hopkins Medicine, put the number closer to one in four. Given these figures, in a training class of 30 people, it’s likely that mental illness has affected five to six individuals. Even in a smaller workshop of five or six participants, there’s a great likelihood that one individual is affected.
The US Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s recent case study report, Cultivating Wellness: Mental Health Training in the Workplace, addresses how and why leaders in the corporate community are creating innovative programs and training to address mental health and well-being in the workplace. While it adopts a general approach to building a mentally healthy company, the practical information and strategies provided in the report can be applied to any situation, including COVID-19 pandemic.
Workplace Mental Health as a DEI IssueIn August 2019, experts who served on Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) Diversity Summer Panel determined that change was overdue. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is about more than race and culture. To embrace diversity is to offer support to communities facing stigmas, and one of the largest and least-discussed in the workplace are the millions struggling with mental health problems.
Co-sponsored by the FAS Dean’s Office, FAS Human Resources, and the FAS Office of Diversity Relations and Communications, and a part of the FAS Diversity Dialogue series, Mental Health as an Invisible Dimension of Diversity brought together five mental health practitioners from Harvard and greater Boston to discuss the impacts of the problem in the workplace and what can be done about it.
“It’s something that affects everyone, and it is here with us, among us,” said Andrea Kelton-Harris, senior human resources consultant for FAS, in her opening address at the conference. “If our symptoms are invisible, how does our employer help us with it and be sensitive to them?”
What’s the essential role of mental health for a diverse and inclusive workplace in 2021? Let’s take a look:
- Recent acts of racism and violence, and the health disparities of COVID-19, are taking a toll on mental health.
- One study finds that anxiety and depression symptoms have more than tripled in black and Latinx communities in 2020, spiking after the murder of George Floyd.
- The health disparities of COVID-19 are also responsible, as black and Latinx Americans are three times as likely to become infected with COVID-19 as white Americans and nearly twice as likely to die from the virus.
- Beyond the United States, protests for racial justice are reaching around the world and prompting calls for action on a global scale.
On July 14, 2020, NAMI issued a statement published in Forbes. In response to global protests for racial justice, employers around the world are emphasizing their commitment to inclusion and social equity. Organizations must ensure employees from diverse backgrounds can access effective mental health support, a challenge that has been overlooked for too long. As described in a statement by Dan Gillison, the CEO of NAMI: “The effect of racism and racial trauma on mental health is real and cannot be ignored. The disparity in access to mental health care in communities of color cannot be ignored. The inequality and lack of cultural competency in mental health treatment cannot be ignored.”
Mental health and DEI are, therefore, intricately connected.
Diversity and mental health. Employees from diverse backgrounds can face lack of representation, microaggressions, unconscious bias, and other stressors that impact their mental health and psychological safety at work. As a result, initiatives that support diversity, inclusion, and belonging can also support mental health—and vice versa.
Mental health and inclusion. As employers deepen their focus on DEI, they should ensure employees from diverse backgrounds have the mental health support they need, from employee resource groups, to counseling services, to mental health screening tools. This can be an essential element of effective DEI strategy and investment.
Finally, consider these words from Susan H. May, Inclusive Leaders Group senior advisor and licensed clinical psychologist: “Over 90 percent of employees are affected by mental health, both personally and their family members. It impacts every team and every collaboration. Companies that want to create inclusive workplaces need to make mental health a diversity and inclusion priority.”