State addresses mental health in the workplace

by Phil Yacuboski

It is a stigma that many are trying to drop – talking about mental health issues, especially in the workplace.

A new program debuting in Pennsylvania, ‘Reach Out PA: Your Mental Health Matters,' focuses on widening state support and resources for those facing mental health issues and crises.

"For those struggling with their mental health, we have one message: your mental health matters and it's okay to reach out for help," Gov. Tom Wolf said in announcing the program in January. "We are stepping up our efforts to ensure every Pennsylvanian can access mental health care and more agencies can respond to the challenges facing Pennsylvanians struggling with their mental health. The act of reaching out for help – or to help – can make a huge difference for someone struggling."

"We know that one in five of us will be affected by a mental health condition in any given year," said Marie Onukiavage, executive director of the Scranton Chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "That's about 1 million Pennsylvanians. In Lackawanna County alone, that's 42,000. It's just as common as any other health concern, including the cost."

She said any other health concern that affected this many people would be treated as such.

As part of the initiative, the Pennsylvania Insurance Department will examine regulations to make sure Pennsylvanians' health insurance includes mental health access. The Department of Health will make sure those enrolled in Medicare have access to those services and the departments of Labor and Industry and State will make sure employers have the resources they need to address any inadequacies.

"We know that well supported employees do better work," said Onukiavage. "We know that mental health conditions are treatable, so acknowledging and accepting that they are there and they can be treated and someone can continue to be a valued employee is really important."

She said there is a lot of stigma and even discrimination surrounding mental illness and efforts like this one aim to end those or raise awareness.

"This educates people and that's a good thing," she said.

Onukiavage said business owners can begin by recognizing the barriers to treatment. If an employer offers benefits, they can examine their insurance to find what is and is not covered. She also said they can review their Employee Assistance Program and what they offer to their employees.

"Make sure you find a way to make sure your employees understand their mental health benefits, whether it's through trainings or other ways," she said.

Emails, literature and other ways are helpful, she said to ‘get the word out.'

"Make mental health the daily conversation at work as much as you would a flu shot," Onukiavage said.

As part of the ‘Reach Out PA' program, the Wolf Administration has instructed practices used by the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs to create similar programs to combat mental health stigma. Similar efforts will be targeted to children and young adults.

"Self-care is important regardless of what industry someone is employed in," said Rebecca Nazarchuk-Koehler, the director of clinical services at The Aaron Center, a mental health clinic located in Dickson City. "It is important to have a healthy work-life balance regardless of the position or industry. A healthy employee appears to be more likely to be on time for work and enthusiastic for their work if they are healthy. This means less turnover and more productivity."

She said the stigma issue is something society has to work to overcome.

"There appears to be a stigma around asking for help, whether it's for mental health assistance or financial assistance or another type of assistance," she said.

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