November 29, 2021

Employers can have an outsized effect on behavioral health issues. ODI has guidelines.

Americans are living with mental illness and substance use disorder in record numbers: Federal numbers say 20% of Americans — including more than 2 million Ohioans — have a mental illness and that 7.7% of the Ohio population, or about 757,000, have a substance use disorder.

While these numbers by themselves represent a troubling challenge, they also have raised awareness of behavioral health, and that presents an opportunity. A greater understanding by professionals and the public of both conditions is driving an increase in the resources available for care, and that could finally start to make things better.

The Ohio Department of Insurance, recognizing that employers have a unique ability to help, has created an Employer Toolkit: eight pages of facts and guidance on legally required employee benefits and ways to build a supportive workplace.

Adults working fulltime typically spend more time in their workplaces than anywhere else, putting employers in the position both to recognize behavioral health problems and to provide help. But even the most well-intentioned employer can’t help without a solid understanding of mental illness and substance use disorder, and that’s where the toolkit can come in.

Being truly helpful starts with recognizing what mental illness are — and what they aren’t. The toolkit stresses that both are biologically based brain disorders: “They cannot be overcome through willpower and are not related to a person’s character or intelligence. They are medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, behavior, daily functioning and ability to relate to others.”

A lack of understanding of that fact fuels stigma — a set of negative beliefs about a person or thing. In the case of mental illness and substance abuse disorder, it is based on the false notion that behavioral health problems stem from a character weakness or moral failure, and it is among the most harmful effects.

Employers can build a more supportive workplace by educating employees: explaining stigma and the harm it causes and advising on language to use and to avoid when referring to mental illness or substance use disorder.

Other ways to make a workplace more supportive include:

  • Promoting wellness education programs available through public and private agencies.
  • Requiring regular training for supervisors on recognizing emotional distress.
  • Creating a culture of self-care, by offering quiet spaces for mindfulness breaks, encouraging lunch breaks and offering mental health days as part of the leave policy.

Perhaps most important, the toolkit outlines employers’ responsibilities under the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. Generally, it requires that an employer’s health plan treat mental health and addiction care in the same or similar way as the plan treats medical and surgical conditions and disorders.

Of all the societal changes that could improve quality of life for everyone, better understanding and smarter, more compassionate treatment of mental illness and substance use disorder is among the very most important. The potential effect on individual happiness, workplace productivity and social stability is immeasurable.

Employers can play a vital role in that transformation, and they can start with this valuable resource.