Pandemic-related mental health is undoubtedly top-of-mind. In addition, there tends to be an uptick in dialog about mental health this time of year because May is Mental Health Month. Yet here’s what I’m thinking a lot about recently that extends all year long: the critical intersection between mental health and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
While both topics have grown exponentially in discussions among leaders, they have often grown in tandem. However, it’s important to tie the two together. It’s a junction where belonging, health, happiness, and productivity live. But the key is to understand how they intersect and what that means to leaders who want to foster a positive workplace.
The State of Mental Health
The research and stats continue to illustrate that COVID has propelled us into a mental health crisis. In a report by Mental Health America and Surgo Foundation, “The COVID Mental Health Crisis in America’s Most Vulnerable Communities: An Analysis of the US Cities Most Impacted by COVID-19, Poor Mental Health, and Lack of Mental Health Access”, the researchers hit on an important societal issue. A community and workforce’s access to mental health services – especially for underserved populations – is a DEI issue. Period.
“Mental health benefits: A key component of DEI,” a 2021 article in BenefitsPRO, connects the dots by stating that if an organization is going to be committed to DEI, then mental health benefits must be part of the picture. So, ask yourself, are accessible, impactful mental health benefits part of your organization? And even if you say yes, there is still work to do. And it’s interesting to look back a year later and see what mental health needs were unmet before, during the height of the pandemic, and today.
Create Paths to Help
What has become abundantly clear is that organizational management – and HR leaders, especially – must include mental health benefits, resources, and services with a special lens on underserved and high-risk populations. We expect government entities to pave the way, but every company should also take proactive steps to provide its own inclusive, healthy community. (The article was published under different titles to appeal to various HR professionals, including the aptly named DEI That Ignores Mental Health Is Doomed in HRAdvisor.)
The piece states, “Mental ill-health is often a symptom of lackluster DEI within companies, and specifically among minority demographics… Regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, a majority felt that they had experienced barriers to inclusion. McKinsey’s research supports the argument that certain demographics are more likely to feel less included. Among those groups are entry-level employees, women, and ethnic or racial minorities.”
“When someone’s race, identity, and sense of who they are, are repeatedly questioned and used against them, their mental health is affected. When those kinds of questions and attacks happen within the workplace, the individual and the company suffer.”
Foster DEI to Support Mental Well-Being
Let this remind us that the conversation isn’t simply about COVID-related mental health, although that’s the world we live in at this minute. DEI leaders need to ensure that the workplace always fosters inclusivity to support mental well-being proactively.
Other problems that can impact mental health and a feeling of safety at work for marginalized populations include lack of representation/misrepresentation, microaggressions, unconscious bias, and other stressors that can be hard to see. A solid DEI approach ensures that (1) leaders are trained to watch for these issues and (2) employees have access to resources to manage or mitigate these concerns.
According to Forbes, “Managers can be the ‘first responders to address mental health in a crisis. Training, educating, and empowering managers to lead on both mental health and inclusion – and how the two intersect – can speed up needed support to employees from diverse backgrounds. Managers may be in the best position to handle these sensitive issues with individual employees, helping to answer questions, address concerns, and direct people to the best available resources.”
First, Find Your People
The CDC published data about racial inequities that continue to plague our health care system. “The COVID-19 pandemic has brought social and racial injustice and inequity to the forefront of public health. It has highlighted that health equity is still not a reality as COVID-19 has unequally affected many racial and ethnic minority groups, putting them more at risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19.”
That information doesn’t require much of a leap to the gap between underrepresented populations and mental health resources. The right DEI strategy should incorporate holistic, proactive approaches to address mental health needs, especially for groups that have never received or considered support.
The Connection Between Mental Health and DEI
So how do we draw this line between mental health and DEI? What’s interesting is that it’s truly about perspective. Reaching rural, LGBTQ, ethnic, religious minorities, youth, and other groups can be challenging. But it can also be extremely fulfilling, allowing a culture of inclusion and a celebration of differences to shape an organization.
You would be well-served to take an audit of your DEI strategy. Where does it address mental health? Is it proactive? Is it realistic? Are there proper communications plans to inform employees about resources?
These questions may reveal what’s next – and I beg you to take more than a quick look. See what’s working and what’s not to take a macro and micro look at how to improve. HOW are WE making mental health a priority for ALL of our people? How can we start at the top and make it actionable throughout the organization?
Tech Innovation Can Help Close the Gap
During the last few years, one noteworthy stride has been an increased capacity by the medical community to interact with patients online. Zoom therapy wasn’t much of a “thing” a few years ago. But improved technologies and a growing savviness for online medical appointments can drastically improve our reach into underserved populations.
A fascinating interview in Forbes addresses the ripe market for a tech disruption in mental health. This points to a promising future for organizations invested in closing the gap between mental health and all kinds of populations. The article covers the importance of how connecting underserved people with the technology they need to stay up-to-date is essential.
Some interesting tech innovations in this area include, “explicit measurement-based care efforts integrated within virtual behavioral health solutions, expansion into other modalities of care such as coaching, and continued consolidation in the space.”
“Additionally, many vendors are expanding their treatment modalities from just teletherapy with a mental health professional to things like virtual coaching. Finally, tons of funding is going into condition-specific startups, including those focused on substance use care, autism, etc.”
Opportunity is Knocking
This topic offers hope. There is a real struggle right now as the fog of uncertainty has not lifted, and mental health aftereffects reverberate like aftershocks. It’s discouraging to know there are underserved populations and people who suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mental health struggles. It’s not an easy task to look at the gaps in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools. But we can make positive changes here. Armed with the correct information and a willingness to ask hard questions, organizations can use DEI initiatives to make actual societal change.