One in four Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year. Only half, however, receive treatment. Many suffer in silence due to stigma and lack of support or access to care.
Even if every person in need sought help, it is unlikely we would see a reduction in the burden of mental illness on a population level. There are 107 people struggling with a mental illness for every one mental health professional in the United States, the majority of whom are concentrated in urban areas. The numbers don’t add up and the distribution doesn’t match the need.
Furthermore, given the cost of higher education and standard levels of compensation in the mental health field, incentives are not strong or aligned to dramatically expand the traditional mental health workforce in the United States.
We need to find ways to reduce demand for late-stage treatment by helping more people regain their mental wellness earlier when it begins to fail; and stay well once they are in recovery. But most prevention, early intervention and recovery support doesn’t happen in clinics. Many individuals don’t seek help until long after a problem has taken a toll on their ability to function. When they do seek help, traditional providers can generally only be paid by billing for services to those with a diagnosed illness. Demand reduction has to happen elsewhere – where people live and work every day of their lives.
Two thirds of adults in the US have a job, and 70% of those who live with a mental illness are in the workforce. Optimizing work and workplaces to foster well-being and assist employees to learn skills for both high performance and mental health seems to us like a prime, and often missed, opportunity to support the mental health of everyone in a community
A growing number of organizations have as part of their mission to work directly with employers to help them take better care of their employees’ mental health. It’s not a small problem for employers. Mental illness costs the American economy more than $300 billion every year. The Center for Workplace Mental Health cites multiple studies indicating nearly 70% of that cost is borne directly by employers through the indirect costs of absenteeism, lack of productivity, and turnover. A big shout-out here to entities like the Center for Workplace Mental Health, Tufts Program on Health Work and Productivity, Guarding Minds at Work, ONE MIND at Work, the Colorado Mental Wellness Network, and the Colorado School of Public Health’s own Center for Health, Work and Environment – all of which are dedicated to helping employers identify and implement wellness strategies that address mental health.
But what about professions where the nature of the work has high potential to place professionals’ own mental health at risk? We think very quickly of members of the military, and most branches have made significant strides toward prevention and improved access to treatment for those experiencing traumatic stress injuries. There are also civilian professions where workers are exposed to repeated trauma or chronic high stress. How might those professionals be better prepared to cope with the predictable aspects of their jobs that can erode mental health?
NMHIC has turned attention and resources to working inside some of these professions and with the institutions that prepare the next generation of their workers. Our aim is to catalyze and scale efforts to better prepare professionals to value self-care and understand the potential impacts of chronic or traumatic stress exposure. ResponderStrong has developed and delivered curriculum on the nature of traumatic stress exposure and skills for resilience in nearly 20% of Colorado’s community college programs that prepare the next generation of EMS workers, fire fighters, and law enforcement officers. We have partnered with educational leaders at Metropolitan State University School of Education and Resilient Futures to enhance the understanding of pre-service teachers about how trauma can impact children’s behavior in the classroom – and how to better manage the stresses of teaching when large numbers of children in your school have been impacted by violence, racism, or poverty. We are building on success from this partnership to expand these efforts to all teacher preparation programs in Colorado. We believe that by naming the aspects of professional practice that are likely to be emotionally, mentally and spiritually tough to handle over time, and giving people knowledge and skills to successfully cope and know when to get help, we can have a broader impact on population health and well-being. Our partners in these initiatives have our greatest respect and appreciation.