Mental Health Awareness Fills an HR Knowledge Gap

One in five adults experiences a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. That’s the equivalent of 45.6 million people. A large proportion of them are in the workforce, leading to more than $60 billion in lost productivity annually. Clearly, mental illness is more than a public health issue—it’s also a business issue.

One in five adults experiences a mental health disorder each year.
One in five adults experiences a mental health disorder each year.

You can do the math to estimate the impact to the business in which you work. If 20 percent of adults could be experiencing a mental health disorder in any given year, approximately how many employees does that equate to in your company? If those employees aren’t seeking help for their conditions, what is the potential impact to them, their co-workers, the workforce, and the bottom line?

Most businesses today have first aid kits readily available to treat physical conditions at work. Many of us keep first aid kits in our cars, purses, briefcases or desks. We take CPR courses every few years to be prepared to help someone who may experience a heart attack. But few businesses are taking action to improve the mental well-being of employees.

As a first line of defense against threats to employees’ well-being and productivity, HR professionals should be positioned to identify and respond early to employees’ mental health disorders. Yet most HR professionals are woefully unprepared to identify or help someone with a mental health condition—even though mental health problems in the U.S. are more common than heart, lung, and cancer diseases combined.

One of the first and most important things HR can, and should, do is to help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. That stigma often arises from a lack of knowledge. We would never think of referring to someone as “a cancer” or “a broken leg,” yet we frequently hear people called “a manic depressive” or “bi-polar.” As with other cultural changes, HR can lead the way to shift the way people think about mental disorders.

Training increases knowledge and reduces the stigma associated with mental illness.
Training increases knowledge and reduces the stigma associated with mental illness.

When stigma is eliminated, people are less afraid to seek treatment for their condition. Despite the current prevalence of mental illness, only a third of those afflicted receives treatment, according to estimates.  And mental illness is treatable.  With the right training and knowledge, HR professionals can provide leadership in reducing stigma and encouraging treatment.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve attended several educational courses dedicated to raising awareness of mental health issues and training people to identify and respond to mental disorders. All the courses I attended are excellent programs designed to accomplish specific outcomes. For example, the LivingWorks’ SafeTalk program focuses on suicide prevention. Another program, Emotional CPR (eCPR), trains people to assist others through an emotional crisis. Both programs were designed and are facilitated by dedicated mental health professionals.

Among the many courses I’ve investigated so far, I found the eight-hour Mental Health First Aid course to be applicable to an HR practitioner’s role. Managed by the National Council for Behavioral Health, the course focuses on improving mental health knowledge and skills. It’s designed to teach lay people methods of assisting someone who may be in the early stage of developing a mental health problem or in a mental health crisis. As with CPR training, the trainee is not expected to respond as a physician, but rather as an early responder. The course teaches participants:Mental Health First Aid

  • The signs of addictions and mental illness
  • Impact of mental and substance use disorders
  • A five-step action plan to assess a situation and help
  • Resources and where to turn for help.

The program is designed for all people and organizations that make up a community—and a workplace certainly meets the definition of a community. People who interact regularly with a lot of people, such as police officers, HR professionals, and health care workers, are encouraged to attend a Mental Health First Aid course.