Over the past 50 years, society has made great strides to de-stigmatize many physical and genetic conditions. Educational efforts have helped many people understand conditions like Down Syndrome and cerebral palsy that were previously misunderstood. Yet, through leading a company that provides behavioral health solutions, I’ve seen that when it comes to showing compassion and understanding for those with mental illness, we still have plenty of work to do.
More than half of adults with mental illness do not receive treatment for their conditions, which means that for every person receiving help for conditions like anxiety or depression, there is another individual who is struggling with a condition they might not fully understand without professional assistance. Too often we stigmatize mental illness, which marginalizes those who are suffering and can prevent them from seeking help.
Frequently, I’ve found our society acts as if mental health problems are a sign of character weakness or a personal flaw, rather than very real, diagnosable and treatable illnesses that require medical attention just like any physical condition. Disparities that already exist in healthcare due to race, social class and ethnicity are amplified by stigmatization, thus making healthcare even more inaccessible for those individuals who need it the most.
My company’s solutions help quantify and manage depression and anxiety, so I’ve also seen the medical system often fails to properly identify and diagnose depression and anxiety. Individual symptoms are so commonplace that it can be challenging to connect the dots. It is easy to mistake signs of emotional distress with physical problems, as human emotions live in the body and can manifest in a multitude of ways.
In younger people, for example, mental health conditions are not always expected or investigated as vigorously, which can lead to delays in diagnosis and care. Symptoms like hyperactivity or tantrums might be written off as normal childhood experiences, but from my perspective, they should not be ignored if they are occurring repeatedly or intensely. Potential symptoms may also be overlooked in seniors if they are written off as a symptom of cognitive decline or aging.
Since the mind is intimately connected to the body, untreated mental health conditions can have a profound impact on physical health. According to the American Heart Association, “Depression and negative psychological health conditions are associated with a less healthy heart and body … improving psychological health can lead to a healthier heart and healthier body.”
The ramifications extend into the business world, as employees with untreated mental illness are prone to absenteeism and presenteeism. Furthermore, according to the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion per year in lost productivity. And if businesses are self-insured, they could be paying more when mental health is not addressed.
A recent report by Mental Health America also found that only 5% of employees strongly agreed their employer provides a safe environment for employees who live with mental illness. Businesses can take steps to prioritize emotional well-being for employees by:
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