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Lesson from COVID-19: Time to invest in prevention instead of just treatment of mental illness

This article was originally published at BenefitsPro.

Christine Tobler is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist & Emotional Intelligence Certified Coach. She is the Head of Coaching at Meru Health.

As I write this article, COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed to millions around the world, which brings us some sense that there is the light at the end of the tunnel to this year-long pandemic and all of its ripple effects. In primary care and infection disease care, promotion of healthy behaviors that help reduce the risk of infection (i.e. mask wearing, handing washing, social distancing) have become common sense to most people; developing and receiving preventive measures such as vaccines to reduce severe negative outcomes are a standard practice.

Yet it is not so in Mental Health. There is a lack of standard practices for prevention in the mental healthcare industry and most people don’t know what promotion means nor what prevention looks like. As we see it, the four stages of mental healthcare are equally important: promotion, prevention, treatment and recovery/aftercare.

Mental Health: An urgent priority for employers

Caring for the mental health of employees has become an urgent priority for employers, and especially as mental health concerns have been on a sharp incline since the pandemic, employers are investing in benefit programs for online treatments that enable access to virtual care amist restrictions.

But it’s important that employers recognize the significance of the first two stages, namely, the promotion of resilience and mental wellbeing in the workplace, and the prevention of illness prior to the first signs of depression, anxiety, and burnout. Using a traditional behavioral healthcare approach is putting a very narrow focus on reactively treating illness, and at that stage the negative consequences are more significant for the employee, and also more costly for the employer.

In a comprehensive mental health program, one of the first steps is helping employers to explore the goals and values of promotion of mental health, and develop strategies to establish a culture that empowers individuals to focus on their mental fitness and emotional wellbeing while maintaining business objectives and productivity standards.

Smart Tools To Access and Promote Your Employees Wellbeing

The WHO provides this definition: “Mental health is a state of wellbeing in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Promotion and prevention of mental health at an organization begins with defining what this state of wellbeing means and how employees are coping with stressors in their lives.

Up until now, employers are often reactive to signs when employee mental wellbeing is absent, such as the high cost of employee turnover, low morale and employee burnout. Instead, a great way to start proactively is to get an analytical snapshot of the population’s mental health by using a confidential digital screener. This not only increases individual self-awareness of their wellbeing, it also helps employers understand the state of mental health of their workforce, assess for risk, and learn where they need to make improvements on existing programs and resources. When employers provide incentives for employees to participate in such screening periodically, it clearly communicates that mental health is a top priority for the organization.

In addition, to proactively promote mental health and eliminate stigma, companies can offer online resources, webinars and training for managers. One example is a Behavioral Health “First Aid” training where basic knowledge of symptoms of common behavioral health concerns are shared along with risk factors and warning signs for crisis situations. These training webinars can include resilience strategies and employer resources that help employees to easily navigate and find the right support.

Another example is creating online/in-person communities within the company to decrease barriers for employees who might feel they struggle alone to connect with others and to encourage help-seeking behaviors and reduce stigma. These communities also serve an important function of low cost peer support and mutual learning from others who are not professional helpers.

Coaching As a New Trend to Help Prevent Mental Illness

One of the trends in recent years in mental health care is the utilization of coaching services as an alternative to therapy for lower-acuity populations, as it provides improved access and reduced cost of care. Mental health prevention is about helping individuals recognize their own signs of mental or emotional distress, and know what to do to build resilience and sustain wellbeing.

Coaching programs for mental health prevention that utilize technology, digital content and personalized coach support which can be accessed easily, tend to have less stigma, are more scalable and cost-effective than service-model coaching programs (i.e. 1 on 1 coaching sessions) or traditional treatment. Since mental illnesses are diverse in nature, and the root of mental and emotional distress can stem from either individual or relational impairment, effective prevention cannot be based on a single modality (i.e. CBT, or motivational interviewing). Instead, it needs to be based on a more comprehensive, multi-facet approach that provides a framework for people to learn skills to deal with mental, emotional and behavioral challenges within both personal and interpersonal context. A good coaching program is like having a GPS system that provides real-time, personalized recalibration to help people navigate successfully to reach their destination.

In summary, to promote mental health and help prevent mental illness, employers can start by reframing mental health into a conversation about a state of well-being, providing employees access to a digital and confidential mental wellbeing screening, and incentivizing regular participation in such check-ups. Employers can also offer mental wellbeing coaching services, to help employees build resilience, improve wellbeing and effectively cope with stressors of their lives. Finally, offering employee webinars and management training programs geared around increasing awareness will help to reduce stigma around seeking help when needed, and establishing a culture of wellbeing. During a heightened time of stress and uncertainty, these strategies are more important than ever before.

Read more about our new Emotional Intelligence-powered Coaching program here.

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