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How workplace policies can affect mental health


Minority Mental Health Awareness Month

Mental health is an important topic of discussion for society as most people suffer from some form of mental illness. One of the causes that can create or trigger a mental illness is a person’s environment; whether it’s home, school, or workplace, the environment in which people spend significant time plays a role in their mental health. Lisa Gomez, assistant secretary of employee benefits with the Social Security Administration (EBSA), spoke recently with Our Weekly to highlight the importance of workplaces providing their employees with better support for their mental health.

“Most Americans spend a great deal of time at work, and everything about a worker’s job can impact their mental health – their wages, their hours, their working conditions, and how they are treated by their colleagues and their management,” Gomez said as she spoke on how the workplace impacts one’s mental health. “This is why the Department of Labor is taking a comprehensive new approach to defining what it means to have a “good job.” A key part of this definition is a worker’s ability to advocate for themselves and have a voice in their workplace.

The more workers are empowered and educated about their rights, the healthier our workforce will be, and the healthier our economy will be, too.”

The importance of Minority Mental Health Awareness started when writer and activist Bebe Moore Campbell challenged the status quo on issues of race and mental health. In 2008, Congress declared that July would be designated nationally as Bebe Moore Campbell Minority Mental Health Awareness Month to increase public awareness about the devastating impact that mental health and substance use disorders have had on communities of color. Gomez also states the most notable illnesses among Black people and people of color are anxiety, depression, suicidal tendencies, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and a variety of other mental health challenges that develop at higher rates than the rest of the population.

When asked about the public perception of men and their mental health not being of the utmost importance to society, Gomez highlighted that while systemic racism and lack of knowledge play a role in it, the stigma surrounding men’s mental health makes it difficult for them to receive the help they need. “In the United States, stigmas formed through generations of systemic racism, stereotyping, and cultural misinformation that have become very deeply rooted,” Gomez said as she spoke about how society put men into a box. “Studies have shown that generally, men are far more unlikely to seek care for mental health and are far more likely to be impacted by substance use disorder.”

According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports 9.2 million people 12 and older misused opioids in the past year. In 2021, 94% of people aged 12 years or older with a substance use disorder didn’t receive treatment. Nearly all people with a substance use disorder who did not get treatment at a specialty facility did not think they needed to do so.  Nearly one in four adults 18 and older, and one in three adults aged 18 to 25 years had a mental illness in the past year. Nearly 1 in 3 adults had either a substance use disorder or any mental illness in the past year, and 46 percent of young adults 18-25 had either a substance use disorder or any mental illness.

Gomez details that depression and suicide are among the leading causes of death for men.

“This is a crisis, and it has only been getting worse. Unfortunately, this situation is only more dire when you narrow the lens to look at men of color, who are among those at the highest risk of experiencing mental health challenges,” Gomez said. Some 12.3 million adults aged 18 and older had serious thoughts of suicide in the past year, 3.5 million made suicide plans, and 1.7 million attempted suicide.

The increase of mental health ailments among adults in the workplace has increased by 12 percent over the last two years, jumping from 48 percent in 2021 to 60 percent in 2023, according to Lyra Health reports. Also included in the report is that 86 percent of employees experienced at least one mental health challenge over the past year, but only 33 percent received mental health care that same year. The pandemic also played a role in those numbers as well as a more substantial role in the numbers unreported as many people were unemployed and others worked from home.

Gomez’s role as an EBSA directly affects how workers can use the health plan they receive from their jobs. She also helps workers with information and access to mental health care and treatment for substance use disorders.

“Specifically, EBSA is responsible for enforcing laws related to Mental Health parity. Mental health parity means that your health plan cannot cover mental health care and treatment for substance use disorders in a way that is different from how they cover medical or surgical care.” Gomez said as she explained her role and the purpose of it. “They can’t add extra fees, red tape, or other barriers that make it more difficult for folks to get treatment for their mental health and substance use disorders.”

Gomez notes that while mental health parity is enforced, many plans and companies do not comply with the law. “Under President Biden’s leadership, however, EBSA has committed unprecedented resources to solve this problem, and the agency recently proposed new rules to strengthen these laws and protect America’s workers and their family members who are seeking help to address mental health conditions and substance use disorders,” he said.

According to Gomez, the Department of Labor’s goal is to provide people with mental health conditions and substance abuse problems, with access to the support they may need to succeed at work and have an improved quality of life. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, covered employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to people with mental health conditions. A reasonable accommodation is any modification or adjustment to a job or work environment that enables a person with a disability to perform the essential functions of or enjoy the benefits and privileges of a job. President Biden has been working hard to educate and empower workers – knowing their rights is important, and being able to exercise those rights and ultimately having a voice in the workplace is the goal.

The Department Of Labor has created a mental health work campaign, to better assist employers and employees with their mental health and provide guidelines on requesting proper support. One of the ways they are helping employers to help their workers is by creating the 4 A’s guidelines, which include accommodations, access, awareness, and assistance. The 4 A’s are the core of a mental health guide for employers developed by the Office of Disability Employment Policy in collaboration with its Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion.

“This guide was recently updated to address issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic – including long COVID’s impact on mental health,” Gomez said as she explained the guideline and everything included. “This toolkit makes it clear the many ways that employers can ensure that their mental health initiatives are implemented in a way that respects the differing experiences and perspectives of their employees.”