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Why we should all prioritize reducing mental health stigma

Posted May 11, 2022

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Since the start of the pandemic, mental and behavioral health requests increased 100 percent. For the youngest employees, that increase was even higher. While the mental wellness need was always there, employers are increasingly taking notice. 

All of the above puts an increased emphasis on removing any barriers that discourage anyone from saying, “I need help.” What’s one of the biggest barriers? The stigma around mental health.  As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, we chatted with a pair of experts from HealthPartners to learn tips on how to remove mental health stigma in the community and your workplace. 

How is stigma affecting our communities? 

While most employers report that they are serious about their employees’ mental health, many haven’t confronted one critical challenge: stigma. Nearly 9 out of 10 people facing mental health challenges say that stigma and discrimination have a large and negative effect on their lives. 

The problem with stigma is similar to the problem with other types of discrimination: People who do not match the majority tend to face additional challenges. “Stigma is about silence and stereotypes, it’s about a negative view of a human being because of a condition or a set of symptoms they’re experiencing. Stigma shows up as beliefs around mental illness not being very common or around believing that no one else has ever experienced what you’re experiencing” Marna Canterbury, senior director of community health & engagement at HealthPartners, said on our Benefits Buzz podcast. As a result of stigma, mental health conditions are often viewed and treated differently from other chronic conditions. Stigma affects everything from interpersonal interactions to organizational structures, including access to treatment and reimbursement for costs.     

At a time when people are at their most vulnerable, stigma prevents them from reaching out for help and utilizing the proper resources. 

The National Academy of Medicine defines three primary forms of stigma:

  • Self-stigma, also referred to as internalized stigma, is the negative assumptions and stereotypes we internalize. A person facing mental health challenges may think of themselves as broken, rather than believing they have an illness that others also face and that there are treatments for. This way of thinking not only harms their sense of self-worth, but also makes it difficult for them to seek the proper resources.  
  • Public stigma, also known as social stigma, relates to society’s attitudes toward a group of people. Public stigma around mental health creates an environment in which individuals feel unwelcomed, judged, and alone. It shapes how individuals see themselves in the workplace and can perpetuate self-stigma. 
  • Structural stigma refers to workplace stigma which occurs at the systems level through discrimination in cultural norms, practices, and policies. Workplace stigma often leaves employees who are facing mental health challenges feeling out of place within an unforgiving space. 

What changes have you seen organizationally on this topic?

It is notable that organizations across the country have been providing and improving their mental health resources, especially their employee assistance programs (EAPs). EAPs are an effective way to support employees and help them identify and address their mental health struggles before they become a genuine obstacle to their quality of life and workplace performance. 

“We’re seeing double to triple the number of people reaching out for counseling via EAPs,” Joel Spoonhiem, senior director of worksite health & population at HealthPartners, said on our Benefits Buzz podcast. “Employers are now offering up to 25 appointments to their employees through EAPs because they are aware there is an access issue across the country where there aren’t enough therapists available. EAPs are able to fill these gaps.”

Spoonheim said more people are also exploring digital cognitive behavioral therapy, a practical, short-term form of psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy). There are many people that, because of stigma, will never go see a therapist but are willing to explore these same services digitally without human interaction. Spoonhiem explained that “these digital programs have the same efficiencies as meeting with a therapist for 8 to 10 sessions.”

Organizations have also been seeing their claims go up. This is a good thing and indicates that people are seeking care and utilizing the resources available to them. People need to seek care in order to get better as soon as possible.

What are some common solutions you suggest to employers? 

The understanding of supporting employee mental health is well established, but where do you start? First, recognize that nationally nearly one in five people face mental health issues. It is extremely important that we shift the perspective within the workplace to reduce stigma. Begin by normalizing the conversation around mental health and raising awareness about the available resources within your organization. 

Spoonhiem recommends these three tips to employers:

  • Talk about it - Raise awareness and remind your employees it is treatable and it is normal. We need to recognize that a lot of mental health issues are treatable, manageable, and will pass. During conversations, leaders should show that they care with kindness and specificity as to why they are reaching out.
  • Train your managers - Train every leader on how to recognize, react, and refer someone to your EAP. Part of this is making sure your managers know what your EAP delivers. Make sure managers and employees know about the specific tools that are available to them and their benefits.
  • Have leaders share their own stories - Normalize the idea that you can be successful and have a mental illness. What obstacles were they facing and how did they work through them? Emphasize to your employees that they are never alone.

Check out the Make it OK campaign to learn more about how you can start the conversation about mental health in your workplace and reduce the stigma.

Eliminate the stigma

The information in this blog post is for educational purposes only. It is not legal or tax advice. For legal or tax advice, you should consult your own counsel.

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