Joni S. Schwager Executive Director

Schwager’s Viewpoint: Employee mental health at all-time low

Pittsburgh Business Times
September 30, 2022
Joni Schwager

Countless hours have been devoted to talking about Covid-19, the pandemic that’s upended our lives over the past two years. Under the surface, however, another pandemic is raging. Our mental wellness — or rather, lack of mental wellness — is at a tipping point. In light of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, it’s time to stop simply talking and to get to work.

According to the World Health Organization, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25% the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic. Boston College researchers found rates of anxiety and depression among college-age adults six times greater than prepandemic. And among certain populations, namely young (age 10 to 35), male people of color, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports increased suicide rates, likely due to pandemic-related stresses.

Though one in four people experience a mental illness at some point in their lives, the perception surrounding it remains largely negative and dismissive. A recent study by Lyra Health found employee mental health is at an all-time low, with nearly one-third of workers surveyed reporting declines over the past year. While there’s no denying that Covid negatively impacts people’s mental health, we are not doing enough as a society to address it.

For 85 years, Staunton Farm Foundation has been dedicated to improving the lives of people with mental illness and/or substance use disorders. The Foundation works to enhance behavioral health treatment by advancing best practices through grantmaking to nonprofit organizations across southwestern Pennsylvania. The meaningful work of our grantees provides life-saving support for the people who need it most.

Perhaps as important as funding the work, though, is educating communities and advocating for additional support.

For example, while everyone knows to contact 911 in an emergency, few are aware of 988. Implemented in July, 988 is the new three-digit dialing code that routes callers to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. This life-changing hotline for mental health crises should make it easier for people to gain access to services and, potentially, reduce police interventions. You don’t have to be suicidal to call 988. It is for any mental health or substance-use emergency. Staunton Farm Foundation has long advocated for the hotline and is working to ensure that the region’s mental and behavioral health infrastructure is up to the challenge.

There are simple, yet meaningful, steps each of us can take — regardless of our role — to serve as mental health advocates and allies. Lawmakers should educate themselves on the importance of permanent funding for 988, mobile response units and stabilization beds. Health care providers should integrate mental and behavioral health into primary care offices. The state needs to ensure mental health and substance insurance coverage are equal to physical health coverage. Employers should offer mental health benefits and be as understanding of mental health-related absences as they are of other sick leave. Loved ones should be open with each other and share their experiences, both positive and negative. We should all work to better understand each other and normalize the mental health concerns we all share.

Together, we can really make progress through our work toward a future where mental wellness is understood, supported and accepted.