Tackling the Mental Health Pandemic: Change the Narrative

Tackling the Mental Health Pandemic: Change the Narrative
Taegan Devar

Post Covid-19, the conversation about mental health has opened up in many companies. They have wellness days to coincide with World Mental Health Day, put on lunches and give out goodie bags. Employees get a breather to attend talks from experts, dance, laugh, and learn stress relief techniques.

But have you ever wondered why, despite initiatives like World Mental Health Day, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and wellness committees, people’s mental health just seems to be getting worse, and individuals within organisations are struggling to access the help they so desperately need?

In my work in the Organisational Development space, I often encounter individuals silently grappling with stress, anxiety, depression, financial issues, strained personal and professional relationships, burnout and other mental health challenges. People are resorting to highly destructive and addictive coping mechanisms. The obvious ones are drugs and alcohol, but sports betting is a pervasive addiction that is having very destructive repercussions in South Africa.

Instead of seeking assistance (or in many cases not even knowing what assistance looks like or where to access it), employees are breaking down physically and mentally. They are often absent, disengaged, or working in an unfocused and unsafe manner. They are working drunk, hungover or drugged and are often in debt, resulting in the use of violent loan sharks who plague them day and night.

In the context of what some are calling a ‘second pandemic’, how can leaders and organisations authentically support their employee’s mental health in ways that are genuinely caring, knowing that when one suffers the whole suffers? How can employees themselves proactively recognise mental health warning signs, seek support from peers and professionals and take appropriate action?

Name it, don’t shame it

The single biggest barrier to accessing support for mental health challenges is the stigma and shame around asking for help. If like me, you have grown up in an environment in which asking for help was seen as a sign of weakness and the “just get over it/suck it up” narrative was prevalent, then you have probably found ways – often avoidant/destructive – to manage your struggle quietly and alone.

The first step for organisations is to do the work of shifting this narrative away from shame and secrecy, towards normalisation and transparency. This is done by creating regular opportunities to openly discuss the benefits of seeking support, and most importantly, demystifying what support entails.

Sharing stories of individuals who sought help that positively impacted them is particularly powerful. It is even more powerful when individuals feel safe to share their stories themselves.

Leaders sharing their own mental health stories can significantly destigmatize the issue and encourage others to do the same. I recently had the privilege of hearing the CEO of a large company vulnerably share his journey with depression and treatment with his senior leadership. It was one of the most moving and impactful sessions I have ever facilitated.


Beyond EAP hotlines

Having an EAP hotline is critical to enable employees to access professional wellness services, but it is not enough. Often when someone is accessing EAP support, they are already in crisis.

Raising awareness of preventative support options is critical, as is clarifying misconceptions about therapy, medication, healthy lifestyle choices and holistic mental health practices.

Companies can begin by implementing a year-round, structured and comprehensive wellness promotion program that provides options for easy-to-access, confidential support. Embedded in such a program should be ongoing education on how to recognise signs of distress, and the capacitation of organisational ‘mental health champions’, who can disseminate health information, refer cases and improve EAP utilisation.

If leaders are serious about supporting wellness and mental health in their organisation, taking a holistic and health promotive approach is key. Those that do, see the benefits not only in the use of the EAP service, but in overall employee engagement, morale, commitment, safety and performance.