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Cross-Cultural Psychology

Employers Hold the Key to Eliminating Mental Health Stigma

Change starts with culture and conversation.

By Soteri Polydorou, M.D., and Manish Sapra, M.D.

The stigma experienced by many with mental health conditions has thankfully dissipated in parts of society because of the growing awareness of prevalent and available treatment; and that has led to people becoming more comfortable with seeking assistance. However, stigma remains a great concern, particularly within certain professions. For example, in professions such as law enforcement, airline pilots, and, yes, even health care, there is the fear that revealing symptoms associated with behavioral health could lead to a loss of on-the-job responsibilities.

This needs to change, starting with the culture and conversation that takes place within leadership in these professions. The first steps: Acknowledge the stress of demanding jobs, and that asking for help or revealing symptoms will not lead to punishment or diminished trust from senior management.

Until employees recognize that leadership is serious about treating mental health as a necessary part of health care, stigma will continue to exist. Without such recognition from leadership, the impact is likely to negatively affect those in the organization; they will dismiss or intentionally hide their symptoms. This is tragic because effective treatments are available.

There seems to be a blind spot among leaders, according to recent studies conducted by McKinsey’s Center for Societal Benefit Through Healthcare, which shows that employees wish their bosses took stigma’s harmful impact seriously.

For example, 80 percent of full-time workers surveyed said an anti-stigma awareness campaign would be helpful. Unfortunately, only 23 percent of employers have implemented such a program. Also, when employers were asked to prioritize 11 potential behavioral-health-focused initiatives, stigma reduction came in last, even though three-quarters of employers who responded said stigma exists.

The good news: There are effective ways for employers to shift the narrative including increasing awareness, creating an environment where employees feel safe talking about their needs privately or publicly, and eliminating discriminatory language.

Even seemingly simple steps, such as adopting supportive and nonpunitive language, can be effective. For instance, instead of using words such as drug addict or alcoholic, use the words a person with substance use disorder. This humanizes and acknowledges a chronic medical condition that can be successfully treated. Instead of assigning blame for “moral failures,” there is the potential for recognition of the neurobiological aspects of various addictions.

This sort of repurposing of language shows empathy and support, which is key for anyone dealing with a medical difficulty of any kind.

Human resource decision-makers can also send the right message by including robust behavioral health benefits as part of a competitive health care package.

The problem of access exists for myriad reasons, including financial constraints; mental health isn’t properly covered in many plans. This forces people to pay out of pocket, and people who can’t afford it are left isolated.

Some employers are recognizing that offering more inclusive behavioral health services as part of their benefits package makes a difference in the long-term health and overall dedication of employees.

Better access and improved workplace culture can go a long way toward eliminating behavioral health stigma. There’s no reason why both can’t happen.

Soteri Polydorou, M.D., medical director of addiction services at Northwell Health and associate professor of medicine and psychiatry at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra-Northwell.

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