ADA & Disabilities

Mental Illness is Normal: Employers Should Identify and Treat It

By Terri L. Rhodes

October is Depression Awareness Month. The intent is to encourage discussion of the topic, reduce stigma associated with it, and encourage individuals and organizations to do more.

Mental Health

Depression is a common disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 7.6% of Americans 12 years of age and older have depression in any 2-week period. Any disease of this scale and scope imposes real costs. Costs to individuals. Costs to families. And costs to employers.

The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry reports depression costs the U.S. $210 billion per year. For every dollar spent treating depression, an additional $4.70 is spent on direct and indirect costs of related illnesses, and another $1.90 is spent on a combination of reduced workplace productivity and the economic costs associated with suicide directly linked to depression.

Untreated depression and other mental illness wreak havoc on individual lives, family budgets, and organizational finances.

So what can employers do to reduce the enormous costs associated with depression and other mental illness?

Mental Illness is Like Any Other Illness

First, we must think and act as though mental illness is just that, an illness. There is still a great deal of stigma attached to mental illness. Surveys conducted by our organization indicate the level of stigma among employers is essentially stable—and too high.

Mental illness is too often treated the way cancer was 50 years ago—in whispers and rumors. Only when society, including employers, treat mental illness like “any other disease” will it be addressed in a way that significantly reduces both human suffering and employer costs. Overcoming stigmatization at every level of the organization is what will make this a reality.

New Screening Tools Are Effective

Next, employers need to make use of screening tools. Employees sometimes give false information to avoid the potential negative workplace repercussions. The screening tools are most effective when employees truly believe revealing mental health issues is an avenue to treatment options that enable them to better perform their jobs. Evidence indicates sensitive screening conducted in a neutral and supportive manner is highly effective at identifying depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

Make Better Use of EAPs

Finally, employers should make better use of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). According to the DMEC Behavioral Risk Survey, fully 97% of employers surveyed had an existing EAP program. Yet use of these services is very low. According to a recent survey of 947 employees by Guardian Life Insurance, 54% of respondents said counseling was the main reason they accessed EAP services.

The same survey revealed that in 64% of workplaces, only 10% or less of employees have used EAPs. In 87% of workplaces, 20% or less of employees have used these services.

Employers must do a better job of communicating the services they provide and continue to emphasize that use is confidential and has no impact on an employee’s work status—just like any other healthcare utilization.

When employers do effectively communicate about EAPs, the results are impressive. Although detailed EAP performance statistics are limited, documented studies suggest employer-sponsored EAPs can reduce company disability, medical, pharmacy, and worker’s compensation costs.

If more individuals and organizations better understand one thing during Depression Awareness Month, it is this: depression and other mental illness, like all illness, is normal.

We need to have more education and training in the workplace to identify those with depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. We then need to offer unfettered treatment for mental illness that doesn’t imply or make the individual feel something is “wrong with them.” Employees want to work, perform well, and provide for their families as this is the avenue to expanded opportunity and increased self-worth.

Any illness impedes that. HR professionals help employees and the entire organization when they knock down barriers to effective and timely medical treatment. The first step is to be fully aware of the prevalence and normality of mental illness.

Terri L. Rhodes Terri L. Rhodes is CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition (DMEC). She holds an MBA from Columbus University, is a Certified Professional in Disability Management and holds the Certified Case Management Professional designation from the Insurance Educational Association.