Working Well

What Does Your Company’s Health Care Plan Say About Your Attitude Toward Mental Health?

Research suggests some workplaces are not treating mental health care as a priority in their organization.

Every time there’s another mass shooting in the United States, the same political debates and questions come up.

Are thoughts and prayers enough when you’re not taking action? Isn’t this why we need gun control? What about the right to bear arms? These conversations and disagreements are so circular and repetitive every time there’s a mass shooting at a school or anywhere else.

There are also always certain comments about mental illness. To prelude, back in November I shared a New York Times article called “Are Mass Murderers Insane? Usually Not, Researchers Say.” Someone on Twitter from the Mental Illness Policy Org (@MentalIllPolicy) commented, “I’m a liberal, but as I document in National Review, NY Times is wrong. Untreated seriously mentally ill are more violent” and sent over a link to a very illuminating article.

This article both advocated for people with mental illness and sought to dismiss the claim many mental health experts make that there is no connection between violence and mental illness. According to the article: “When people ask, ‘Are the mentally ill more violent?’ they probably aren’t thinking of co-workers who have mild forms of anxiety or ADHD. They are thinking of untreated psychotic homeless people eating out of dumpsters, screaming that they are the Messiah; they’re thinking of a person like the Sutherland Springs shooter, Devin Patrick Kelley, who had a history of violence and escaping a psychiatric hospital.”

It continued to go on about how denying any link doesn’t do anyone any good and about how cost-effective treatment of the seriously mentally ill should be more of a priority. “[Mental health pros] are more interested in preventing stigma than in preventing violence. But they have the priority backwards. It is violence by the minority that in fact stigmatizes the nonviolent majority,” wrote the author.

This is not a standalone argument. See this statement from John T. Monahan, a University of Virginia professor who specializes in psychology and law, according to the New York Times.

Two things typically happen in the wake of a mass shooting. First, politicians claim that mental illness is the major cause of violence in America. Then, advocates for people with mental illness respond by denying there is any relationship whatsoever between mental illness and violence. Both groups are wrong. Research shows that the association between mental illness and violence is not strong, but it does exist.

Here are a few of the major takeaways I got from these sources:

  1. Even though this specific group may be more violent, it does not mean that every person who commits a violent crime is mentally ill. Treating mental illness as a harbinger of violence is insulting and does not help with the mental illness stigma in this country. Also, people without a mental illness are also capable of committing a violent crime.
  2. Being mentally ill is not an excuse to commit violent crimes. Some type of response or punishment is still justifiable. That does not mean the perpetrator is not also a victim of a poor mental health system.
  3. And the word “untreated” is very important in this sentence in that National Review story: “Untreated seriously mentally ill are more violent.”

Let’s focus on how people get treatment through health care. This topic is worth a deep dive by looking at it through a public policy or public health lens. But let’s focus on workplace health care policies, as so many people in America do get health care from employer-sponsored plans.

Does your organization consider mental health care equally important as physical health care? Does the health care policy you offer show that? Is access to this type of care affordable and reasonable? Do you offer reasonable accommodations for people with mental illnesses?

Some research suggests some workplaces are not treating mental health care as a priority in their organization. The percentage of employers that offer mental health coverage has dropped from 89 percent in 2013 to 81 percent in 2017, according the Society of Human Resource Management’s 2017 Employee Benefits study. That’s concerning.

There’s a lot of talk now about looking at employee health holistically and taking care of the whole person in the workplace. That’s fantastic.

Speaking for myself, though, when I receive pitches about mental health, they’re rarely focused on what’s offered in a health care plan. Correct me if I’m wrong here. I’d love to speak to companies whose health care services offering supports their commitment to this holistic approach to care.

[Also read: “Mental Health Takes on New Meaning for Millennials at Work”]

[Also read: “Guiding Employees Toward Mental Health Practitioners”]

I think back to a webinar I attended months ago, which left me with some fascinating data from the American Psychiatric Association. Some 60 percent of adults with some mental illness did not receive mental health services in the last year, according to the APA, and the webinar attendees received a poll question: “What factors keep employees from receiving care?”

Most of us guessed, “It could have a negative effect on my job.” In fact, this was one of the least popular answers, along with “concerned about confidentiality.” The most common reasons for not getting treatment were, “inability to afford the cost of care” (51 percent), “not knowing where to go” (26 percent) and “thought the problem could be handled without treatment” (26 percent). What this tells me is that the accessibility and cost of treatment in a health care plan is important. There’s a reason the Affordable Care Act considers this type of care an essential benefit.

One comment on the APA survey: People could choose more than one reason, hence why the numbers add up to more than 100.

I don’t mean to blame employers for people’s lack of access to mental health care. The point I’m trying to make is that it’s no secret that health care is a very important benefit for employees and that cost and accessibility are barriers to receiving care.

Mental health care is a key part of a health care offering.

Andie Burjek is an associate editor at Workforce. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.