Mental Health Awareness Month’s Timely Arrival

May 7, 2021

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and if ever Americans needed to reflect on our collective psychological well-being, now is the time.

Since the onset in the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, we’ve endured lockdowns and social isolation, close to 500,000 coronavirus-related deaths, racial strife sparked by the murder of black Minnesotan George Floyd by a white police officer, a bitterly contested presidential election and political polarization culminating in invasion at the U.S. Capitol, a dramatic rise in attacks against Asian-Americans, and a spree of mass shootings.

In short, we’ve been through a lot in the past 15 months, which explains why “It’s OK Not to Be OK” has become somewhat of a national mantra.

But saying it’s OK not to be OK doesn’t go far enough. While it’s important to recognize that there’s no shame in feeling depressed or overwhelmed, it’s equally important to seek or offer help.

Work-related issues can cause or contribute to stress or depression, but employers and colleagues also can be sources of comfort and assistance. Here’s an overview of mental health issues and resources related to the workplace.

Addressing Misconceptions 

There are many misconceptions about mental health and mental illness. The nonprofit organization HealthPartners addresses the truth behind six common mental-health myths:

  1. Myth: Mental illnesses are rare. Fact: According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness. Young adults, ages 18-25 had the highest prevalence (a reported 29.4%), compared to adults ages 26-49 (25%) and 50 and older (14.1%).

  2. Myth: Trying harder can make symptoms go away. Fact: Simply “trying harder” can be self-defeating. “Some individuals need medicine to manage their symptoms,” HealthPartners notes. “Some need talk therapy. Some need a combo of meds and counseling. And some need a more specialized treatment.”

  3. Myth: Everyone who has a mental illness needs medication to manage symptoms. Fact: While medicine can be helpful in managing symptoms, it may not be necessary. Consult with a mental health professional to determine the best course of treatment.

  4. Myth: Keeping a job is too stressful for individuals with mental illness. Fact: Individuals dealing with mental health issues can be highly productive, and having a job is beneficial to most people contending with psychological challenges.

  5. Myth: People with mental-health illness are more likely to commit a crime or be violent. Fact: According to HealthPartners, only 7.5% of violent acts are committed by people experiencing symptoms of mental illness, while someone with a mental illness is four times more likely to be the victim of a crime.

  6. Myth: Individuals who experience mental health symptoms will never recover. Fact: Treatment enables people with mental illnesses to live happy, productive and meaningful lives.

Here’s one more myth to dispel: Anyone struggling with mental health is suffering from mental illness.

In an article in the New York Times, psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman observes that struggles with mental health do not necessarily equate to mental illness and offers this perspective on the mental health challenges caused by the pandemic:

“While the pandemic has undeniably caused extraordinary stress and sadness, research on human resilience suggests that people will recover from the trauma of the pandemic faster than many believe. And while certain groups may need mental health care for the longer term, it’s also true that humans’ ability to overcome adversity is often underestimated and that an overwhelming majority of people who suffer trauma will not develop mental illness but eventually feel better.”

Where to Turn 

One of the positive developments during the pandemic has been heightened employer awareness and sensitivity to their employees’ mental health. Many have responded by providing well-being webinars for both employees and managers, by delivering targeted communication programs, and by encouraging employees to use resources such as employee assistance programs  (EAPs), virtual behavioral health and available time off.

The fact is, however, that a significant number of employees still aren’t comfortable discussing work-related stress with their employer, manager or even HR department, as Employee Benefit News recently reported.

For those seeking help unassociated with their workplace, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) recommends several organizations as sources of information on finding a mental health professional. These include:

Additionally, NAMI notes, if you have insurance, your carrier can tell you which local providers are covered by your plan, and many companies provide searchable databases with information on practitioners in your area.

Concern for Colleagues 

For most people, it’s instinctive to want to help when we see a colleague struggling. But if we’re working in a remote or hybrid environment, struggles are likely to be less obvious. And even when struggles are apparent, how to address them may not be.

As Crain’s New York Business recently reported, indications of the past 15 months’ toll are soon likely to be evident. Under the headline “Employers brace for mental health fallout as workers return,” the publication noted, “Covid-19’s damage may be felt in the workplace long after the disease has receded. That’s thanks to the mental and emotional toll the pandemic has taken on employees who, like everyone else, have spent the past year living in fear, isolation and sorrow.”

Here are some tips gleaned from a July 2020 New York Times piece headlined “How to Ask if Everything Is OK When It’s Clearly Not”:
  • Check in with yourself first … It’s important to make sure you’re in a healthy place to be present and engage with someone who’s struggling.”

  • Look for signs of distress … such as an irritable mood or disheveled appearance.”

  • Be mindful of any power dynamics … Personal friends, work colleagues, classmates and family members all require different approaches …”

  • When you’re ready to have a conversation, pinpoint why you’re concerned.” By indicating you’ve noticed a change in their behavior, ‘you give them the opportunity to either confirm what you’re saying or deny it,’ said Uche Ukuku, a psychologist. ‘You’re not telling the other person how they feel, but you’re initiating a conversation and giving them a chance to address the change.’”

  • Offer confidentiality.” If awkwardness persists with a peer, let the person know you understand if it’s not a good time to talk, and reiterate that you’re asking because you care.

  • Ask open-ended, nonjudgmental questions” or simply say that you’re interested in the person’s circumstances without seeming to pry.

  • Reveal a bit about your own struggles.” Showing empathy helps free the other person to share grievances or concerns.

  • Don’t be preoccupied with what to say in response.” Be a generous listener, and truly hear what the person has to say.

  • Don’t set out to solve a problem. Your role is to provide support. If the person is in distress, you might recommend a source of professional help.

  • Make a date to follow up. Coming up with a follow-up plan – a phone call in a few days, a socially distanced picnic, a Zoom call – not only give the other person something to look forward to, but it also sends the message that this checkup isn’t going to be a one-time thing.”

Advice to Employers 

For employers, Harvard Business Review editor Amy Gallo provides some excellent advice and case studies in the recent article “When Your Employee Discloses a Mental Health Condition.” Included are six “principles to remember”:

  • Follow the person’s lead in terms of what they want to share.

  • Think carefully about what type of flexibility you want to offer them.

  • Make clear that, as an employer, you may need to discuss the situation with HR, and therefore may not be able to keep the conversation confidential.

  • Make a big deal about the disclosure – it’s important to normalize the conversation.

  • Overpromise what accommodations you’ll be able to give the person until you’ve had time to think it through and talk to HR.

  • Hide your own experience with mental health challenges, especially if you’re a senior leader.

Additional Resources 

If there’s a topic an employer, supervisor or human resources professional needs to learn more about, it’s probably included in the Mind Share Partners’ Reading List for Workplace Mental Health. Compiled by the workplace-focused nonprofit Mind Share Partners, the list is a compilation of more than 50 articles categorized under workplace-related topics including:
  • Anti-racism

  • Burnout

  • Diversity, equity and inclusion

  • Employee resource groups

  • Global research and reports

  • Leadership

  • The pandemic

  • Performance and remote working

  • Programs and resources

  • Strengths-based framing of mental health

  • Team culture and checking in

  • Working norms and practices.

Employers may also be interested in providing their workforce with Alera Group’s weekly Wellbeing insight. You’ll find topics such as:
  • Social and family wellbeing

  • Financial wellbeing

  • Physical wellbeing

  • Emotional wellbeing

  • Community wellbeing

  • Employer-focused wellbeing.

To help employers who promote employee health through workplace wellness programs, Alera Group is hosting a May 20 webinar, Strengthening Your Benefits Package with Technology Solutions. During the webinar, we’ll discuss voluntary benefits vendors, tech vendors, how they intersect and why it’s important for organizations to make the right strategic decisions in building a total rewards program. To register, click on the link below.


About the Author

Andrea Davis
Director of Wellbeing
Alera Group Northeast

Andrea Davis is a wellbeing consultant, and is certified as both a Thriving Workplace Culture Consultant and  Health Coach.​ She has been supporting employers with their corporate wellbeing programs for nearly a decade and brings extensive experience in management consulting and strategic solutions from her years at a Big 4 Firm and two large Investment Banks.

Contact information: