What If Cancer Had the Same Stigma as Behavioral Health Conditions?

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Dan Jolivet
A woman with her hand on her head

Imagine noticing a new or suspicious mole while bathing one day. Now imagine feeling ashamed about the possibility you may have cancer. You blame yourself for any actions or habits that may have caused it. You berate yourself for not being strong enough to prevent it. But there’s also a part of you that hopes you’re mistaken. Or, perhaps if you ignore it, it’ll go away on its own.

You don’t dare mention your discovery or concerns to people for fear that they will judge and reject you. So, you hide it from your spouse and friends. When your doctor asks about any concerns you want to discuss during a routine checkup, you stay silent.

Perhaps your secret gets out somehow. A few people notice the issue, and you see their disgust. It’s almost as if they think they might catch it from you. They begin avoiding you, and you notice conversations abruptly stop when you walk into a room. You end up feeling isolated and helpless.

This is the reality for millions of Americans who have mental health or substance use conditions. Shame and denial are all too common — and these feelings are only reinforced by the pervasive stigma and negative stereotypes surrounding behavioral health conditions.

The Stigma of Behavioral Health Conditions

It’s easy to understand how the above scenario could lead to worse outcomes for those with cancer. People would actively hide their symptoms or avoid treatment, and there would be virtually no early intervention. These individuals would feel isolated, hopeless and depressed, and have an even lower quality of life.

All too often, the stigma surrounding behavioral health issues prevents people from seeking treatment. People with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses are frequently told to just “snap out of it” or “pull it together.”

People with addictions are told they just need willpower to quit drinking or using drugs. Media often portray them as criminals and failures. And following every incident of mass violence, pundits talk about the dangers of untreated mental illness.

The public often sees people coping with behavioral health issues as little more than their conditions, which only reinforces their negative self-image. So they do what they can to conceal their problems and carry on as if nothing was wrong. They avoid treatment, beat themselves up whenever they falter, and focus their energy on being “normal.” They fake wellness until they just can’t anymore.1

Did You Know?

  • Fewer than half of American adults with a mental health condition receive treatment.2
  • Less than 20% of Americans with a substance use disorder receive treatment.3
  • The stigma around mental health and substance use conditions is increasing.4

What Can Employers Do to Help?

Employers have the unique opportunity to support their employees while helping to improve productivity. Behavioral health conditions directly and indirectly cost businesses hundreds of billions of dollars every year,5 which can be reduced with a more empathetic company culture.

Partner With Benefits Providers Who Understand Behavioral Health

Companies should ensure that their benefits or health insurance provider truly understands behavioral health conditions and the impact these issues can have on the individual and the workplace.

Disability professionals can train key staff, such as HR partners, managers and supervisors, to identify employees who could benefit from stay-at-work services — before the employee files a disability claim. While employees with behavioral health conditions are less likely to be referred to stay-at-work or return-to-work services than people with physical conditions, they have very high success rates in both types of programs.

Disability insurers can also help identify trends and issues related to behavioral health conditions in the workplace by comparing program results to historical outcomes or national benchmarks. Once an insurer pinpoints an issue, the insurer can partner with the employer to develop appropriate strategies to address it.

Employee Assistance Programs

Offering employee assistance programs is an important step. Frequent educational campaigns on behavioral health topics and information about accessing EAP services are vital. Not only can this help increase utilization, it can also reduce the stigma associated with seeking these services.

Many EAPs offer workshops and classes to help employees understand and support co-workers with behavioral health conditions.

Other Ways to Help

Annual health risk assessments can be useful in identifying and addressing potential mental health or substance use conditions, especially if the results of those assessments are linked to free coaching or self-management tools. Employers can collaborate with their benefits provider to improve employee resilience and health consciousness. This in turn can improve mental health and lower the risk of addiction and other common behavioral health conditions.

Create an Anti-Stigma Culture

These tactics are most effective when there’s clear and public support from the senior leadership of the company. A CEO who discusses mental health and substance use stigma and supports appropriate treatment can cultivate an employee’s willingness to seek help.

Organizations can also participate in or join anti-stigma campaigns to reduce the negative perception of behavioral health conditions. Popular campaigns include:

Most importantly, anti-stigma campaigns can only be effective within a company culture of respect and dignity. This culture must recognize the unique challenges individuals face, as well as the social factors and barriers that complicate their lives.

Working together, we can reduce the stigma around mental health and substance use conditions to ensure that people get the support and treatment they need to not only survive, but to thrive.