Risk Insider: Terri Rhodes

Mental Health Stigma Increases Costs

By: | June 5, 2017

Terri L. Rhodes is CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition. Terri was an Absence and Disability Management Consultant for Mercer, and also served as Director of Absence and Disability for Health Net and Corporate IDM Program Manager for Abbott Laboratories.

Why does stigma increase costs? Because when we stigmatize mental health issues, employees don’t get the treatment they need. According to recent statistics, approximately one in five people are dealing with a mental health situation on a daily basis; yet only one-third of these people are receiving the care they need.

Over the last two decades, absence professionals have tried to sweep the issue under the rug. We tried to ignore it, and spent thousands of dollars defending against depression to keep it from being attached to a claim. I include myself in this old way of thinking when I reflect back to the time I spent managing workers’ compensation and disability programs.

We didn’t understand the connections to injury and depression. We didn’t want depression, anxiety, or anything vaguely related to a mental health condition to be included as part of the claim because it complicated the claim and added cost.

Popular culture is still filled with inaccurate images of those who suffer with mental illness.

Yet, mental health conditions continue to be among the leading causes of workplace absence and are associated with high medical treatment costs and lost wages. Mental health conditions are often not the primary diagnosis, but they influence recovery and return to work. And because mental health issues often go “under the radar,” their impact may not be captured in claims data, which is why we need to acknowledge the issue and address it head on.

For the last 25 years, DMEC has addressed the importance of workplace mental health and has regularly delivered tools and resources to our members through webinars, white papers, and our conferences. Mental and behavioral health garnered a great deal of attention at the 2016 DMEC Annual Conference. It will again be the focus of a full-day preconference workshop at the 2017 DMEC Annual Conference.

Why do we feel this is such an important topic? Because while strides are being made to increase workplace mental health awareness, little has been done to improve the work environment and provide support to the disability, absence, and risk management professionals who are handling these complex issues. As the social understanding of mental health changes, the roles and responsibilities of employers need to change as well.

Fear and stigma prevents us from addressing workplace mental health issues. So let’s try to look at mental health as “brain health.” The brain is part of the physical body.  Thus, mental health is an aspect of physical health.

Unfortunately, there is a long history of viewing mental health as something both “more” and very “different” than other forms of human health. Popular culture is still filled with inaccurate images of those who suffer with mental illness. I don’t want to imply that we don’t have individuals who suffer significant mental health issues, but most of our employees have mild to moderate mental health conditions that are treatable.

However, those who need care and would benefit from getting it, can be afraid to seek it. Their co-workers and employers suffer along with them, in the form of reduced productivity, absenteeism, possible alcohol and other drug abuse, and morale problems.

To effectively address mental health, employers must continue to overcome stigma in the workplace and begin to treat mental health like any other health condition. We need to show the same care and compassion that is shown for an employee who has cancer, a heart condition, or a broken leg. Until we do, we will continue to see this health condition as the leading cause of absence and disability. We have the power to change the culture; let’s get started.

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