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The U.S. workforce is in the throes of a national mental health crisis that has been exacerbated by pandemic stress, yet more than 67% of employees are reluctant to get help because of the stigma associated with seeking treatment for mental health disorders and addictions.

“They may be afraid that if they open up about this it will hurt their reputation, compromise their work relationships or even jeopardize their job,” said Suzanne Kunis, vice president of Behavioral Health at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey during an NJBIA webinar on Thursday. “Culturally, we have to start trying to change that dynamic.”

While the stigma surrounding behavioral health and addiction is the No. 1 reason that people forgo treatment, it is not the only one, Kunis said. More than 120 million Americans live in areas where there are shortages of mental health professionals, and others fail to get well because the quality of care available is subpar, Kunis said.

This matters because mental health and physical health are inextricably linked. Workers with mental health disorders and addictions are not only less productive on the job, but they are also four times more likely to submit medical claims for other health problems, Kunis said.

The challenge for employers is to create a more inclusive workplace environment that reduces stigmas and prioritizes building and sustaining good mental health, said Frank Ghinassi, Ph.D., senior vice president of Behavioral Health and Addictions at RWJBarnabas Health and president and CEO of Rutgers Health University Behavioral Health Care (UBHC).

One way to reduce the stigma about mental health treatment is to change the way some types of care are delivered. For his company, that means an increased emphasis on integrated healthcare that focuses on the mind-body connection.

“We find that many individuals are more comfortable receiving behavioral healthcare when they don’t have to walk into a building that says: ‘Behavioral Health,’” Ghinassi said.

“One of our goals over the next five years is to see more and more percentages of the behavioral health and addition services that we deliver delivered in buildings that don’t say ‘Behavioral Health,’ but could instead say ‘Primary Care,’ or ‘Pediatrics,’ or ‘Obstetrics,’ or maybe even ‘Cancer,’” Ghinassi said.

Employers can help transform the pandemic’s “new normal” into a “better normal” by creating a workplace culture in which depression, anxiety, post-trauma, and other common mental illnesses become as mentionable as diabetes, hypertension, and migraine, Kunis said.

“It’s about changing your culture and it takes time to make it happen,” Kunis said. “We’ve been very intentional within my own organization at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield by encouraging leaders like myself to share our own personal stories because then it makes it feel OK for other people to say, ‘I live in that kind of world.’”

After sharing her story of her father’s struggles with alcohol with co-workers, Kunis said she was amazed how many people then shared similar stories.

“It helps a conversation that reinforces the prevalence of mental health issues or substance use disorders and lets people know they’re not alone … to get those stigma barriers broken down,” Kunis said.

To learn more about how NJBIA is working with RWJBarnabas Health Behavioral Health Network and Horizon Behavorial Health to bring more in-depth resources to employers and their workforces, go here.

To view the March 24 “Mental Health 101: Normalizing the Conversation” webinar, go here.