May is Mental Health Awareness Month and this year, more attention than ever is being dedicated to the topic.
“This year, I’m seeing so many more places talking about mental health during the month of May than I’ve ever seen in my 10-plus year career,” says Angela Berra, LMSW, MA, director of programs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ (NAMI) St. Louis affiliate.
NAMI St. Louis is a peer-based mental health organization. Everyone who works at NAMI St. Louis, whether they’re full-time staff or volunteers, has a personal connection with mental health. They live with mental health conditions of their own or are family members of people living with a mental health condition.
NAMI St. Louis offers several resources for those living with mental health conditions, including family educational programs, support groups for individuals living with mental health conditions and their family members, and presentations on mental health. All programs are led by someone who has personal experience with mental health. NAMI St. Louis also coordinates the crisis intervention team (CIT) training for local law enforcement and first responders to prepare them on how to manage mental health-related crises.
A career social worker, Berra attributes the increasing conversations around mental health to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the world has slowed down over the last two years, the pandemic has forced people to take their mental health as seriously as their physical health.
“We’re in a mental health crisis in our world right now, and people need access to resources,” Berra says. These resources include employee assistance programs (EAP), which Berra strongly recommends employers have in place for their employees. People can also seek help through their primary care physicians, as well as emergency mental health services and walk-in clinics.
Before joining ISRI, Jerry Sjogren, senior director of safety, routinely had conversations with coworkers who experienced circumstances that negatively affected their mental health. While not a trained mental health professional, Sjogren was always willing to lend an ear to anyone who needed it.
“One thing I learned is that sometimes being a good listener is helpful to people because they can just get things off their chest,” Sjogren says. Sometimes, though, having someone to vent to isn’t enough, and that’s when professional resources are needed. Sjogren advocated for his company to get an EAP. When the company did, it made a huge difference.
“An EAP can [be a huge] help [because] you can pick up the phone and give trained professionals a call,” Sjogren says. “Those people are trained to listen and help guide you [through whatever you’re going through].” Sjogren says that dozens of employees used the program, and the vast majority of them utilized the EAP on more than one occasion.
“We owe it to our people to take care of them,” Sjogren says. “[An EAP] helps with the wellbeing of your employees. Employees will know that you care about them, which in most cases will make them want to be a better employee.”
Berra notes that statistically, depression is one of the leading causes of short- and long-term disability within the workforce. Depression ranks among the top three workplace problems for employee assistance professionals. Additionally, approximately one in 10 full-time employees also live with an addiction, which is often a self-medicating tool for mental health conditions.
“It is vital for employers to provide mental health resources, but it’s also just as important to have an environment where people feel comfortable talking about mental health,” Berra says. “It’s really important that we’re talking about mental health [in the workplace] and people know what resources are available to them.”
Mental health will be one of the topics of discussion at ISRI’s Safety and Environmental Conference (ISEC), which will be June 12–14 in St. Louis. Berra hopes attendees leave ISEC with helpful tools for themselves, their friends and families, and their workplaces.
“I hope people [leave with the understanding that] mental health conditions are physical health conditions,” Berra explains. “We have our bodies; we have our brain that lives in our bodies, and our mental health lives within our brain. We have to treat our mental health just as we would treat any other part of our body.”
Berra is also hopeful people leave the discussions with at least one tool that they didn’t have before to deal with mental health struggles—whether it’s a breathing exercise, a new coping skill, or something else that helps create a sense of peace and mental health.
NAMI has affiliates across the U.S. To learn more about your local affiliate and the resources it provides, visit NAMI.org.