Workplace mental health awareness earns a long-deserved promotion

The notion that most people can leave problems at the home before heading into work is an outdated attitude. Brain scans and copious studies show activity in parts of the brain that govern behavioral traits such as anxiety, depression, addiction, ADHD, autism, and other conditions, can’t simply be turned on and off. 

That’s not to say that anything goes in the workplace. Employers can’t tolerate unacceptable or reckless behavior at work. And employees are responsible for self-care and doing their best to function with others and not undermine efficiency.  

But what if we as coworkers and bosses were to take a pause before jumping to conclusions about others and their states of mind? 

What if we were to take into consideration
“Statistics show that people with mental illness are actually more than likely to be victims of a crime, not the perpetrators,” says Josh Kwasnicki of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.
that dysregulated emotions, addictions, forgetfulness, nervous tics, facial expressions, speech incongruous to social cues, and speech and writing impediments often have neurophysiological underpinnings?  

Such mental and emotional problems are often complex and idiosyncratic. They involve genes, proteins, neurotransmitters, brain injuries, hormones, stamina, eating habits, and other factors. 

Consider, for instance, the impact of childhood trauma and other PTSDs. Studies have shown that emotional trauma can impact our DNA -- in vitro, genetically, and epigenetically. 

As we look to the future, we can also find ways to ensure that people aren’t labeled according to their condition. 

Thanks to discoveries associated with neuroplasticity -- the ability of the brain to change how it functions -- people coping with mental and emotional challenges don’t have to be further isolated. 

We are beginning to understand better the ability of our brains to improve function with the aid of medication, therapy, dietary guidance, and exercise. Problems can be solved, and setbacks happen just as with other chronic conditions.

What we can control is the morale of our workplace. A non-supportive atmosphere and lack of opportunity can undermine the best efforts of people who may feel marginalized for unrelated reasons. 

“Just as we don’t shame people for having a heart condition or diabetes, judging someone based on mental and emotional challenges is equally off-base,” says Josh Kwasnicki, director of organizational development at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.

Shifting attitudes

While the word “fortunately” doesn’t usually appear in the same sentence as “COVID-19,” the recent pandemic has had one positive outcome: It has accelerated mental health conversations. 

“Hillsborough County understands the mental challenges that COVID-19 coronavirus presents and is offering simple resources through the Mindful Mondays program to help promote the different ways to make mental health a priority,” says José Patiño, the county’s media relations strategist.
Hillsborough residents can visit the online Mindful Mondays Mental Health Resources Hub to participate and learn about unique programs and initiatives, and to read helpful articles. Through Mindful Mondays, residents have access to free virtual health classes, videos featuring ways to relax and exercises to reduce stress, tips from community partners, and other programs and initiatives. 

Some of the tips for better mental health displayed on the Hillsborough County website.

The American Psychological Association (APA) reported that nearly half of large employers are training their managers to recognize mental and emotional issues, and an additional 18% plan to begin to do so this year. 

APA writer Charlotte Huff adds that 54% of employers will offer free or low-cost virtual mental health visits, and two-thirds of employees report that poor mental health has undercut their job performance during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 40% of employees are battling burnout.

“We all have in some way or another felt an impact, and that can be triggering for people and can be extremely traumatic,” adds Kwasnicki of the Crisis Center.

An emphasis on positive psychology

The American Journal of Public Health asserts that “greater synergy between positive psychology and public health might help promote positive mental health in innovative ways that can improve overall population health.”  

According to the Journal, it’s better to build on a person’s strengths and encourage feelings of joy, respect, tolerance, and camaraderie in the workplace. According to the Broaden and Build theory of positive emotions promote physical, intellectual, and social resources for optimal functioning.

The typical workplace, sadly, sometimes buzzes with gossip, often exchanged in an effort to promote bonding among a few at the expense of others.  

“What many people fail to realize, or perhaps struggle to accept, is that gossiping is a form of bullying,” writes wellbeing specialist Anthony Savage on LinkedIn. “Gossip can become a fundamental factor in undermining coworkers’ mental health.”

The crucial piece in detoxing workplaces is education. Kwasnicki emphasis that the Crisis Center’s Mental Health First-Aid helps bosses talk and listen to employees, so they can deal with the inevitability of coworker gossip. 

“We're starting to address the need for the community to really understand what to do and how to help people in a crisis,” he says. 

Thanks to the efforts of Kwasnicki and his team, a form of “mental health CPR” is now available to employers. Using a curriculum designed by the nonprofit Mental Health First Aid, the Crisis Center and The Community Foundation of Tampa Bay have launched the Mental Health First Aid Initiative to provide viable skills to address mental health challenges.

Addressing misconceptions is part of the process: “Statistics show that people with mental illness are actually more than likely to be victims of a crime, not the perpetrators,” Kwasnicki says.

Kwasnicki also credits Marty Seligman, former president of the APA and the modern father of positive psychology. 

“Seligman taught us that instead of looking at what's wrong with somebody, let's look at capacity and capabilities, what individuals naturally have, what can they bring to the world, and leverage those so that a person can get well.”  

Creating a new norm

Perhaps recognizing larger companies that promote overall wellness will encourage others to follow suit.

In the March 26 issue of Tampa Bay Times, writer Emily Mahoney highlighted workplaces that have found creative ways to prioritize their staff’s mental health -- “by either adjusting pre-existing programs or by providing completely new resources.” The article shows how local companies responded to growing needs for mental health support during the pandemic.

Metropolitan Ministries, a Tampa-based nonprofit that helps homeless and at-risk families, gleaned from its employees’ expertise on counseling through trauma to help staff. 

“The charity has held weekly virtual support group sessions for employees, some of whom work in the charity’s homeless shelter, and see firsthand some of the devastating effects the pandemic has had on people,” Mahoney wrote.

Mental and emotional wellness will continue to be a focus post-pandemic, according to employer trends in the past decade. 

“Paying more attention to employee mental health is becoming a bigger part of the conversation in today’s workplaces,” says writer Huff of the American Psychological Association. 

“Even pre-pandemic, employers were already learning to be more proactive in identifying symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other disorders.”

Linda Chatters-Walker, director of House of Hope, a program that helps women in transition after incarceration (House of Hope feature),  says that residents in the Hillsborough House of Hope Program Director Linda Chatters-Walker accepts a commendation from now former FBI Director James Comey.Seminole Heights facility frequently suffer from depression and anxiety resulting from trauma and that she and others on the team coach them on coping skills. 

“Some of the women that come in here say, ‘Well, Ms. Linda, I don't take that medicine,” Chatters-Walker explains. “It’s like they're embarrassed to let anyone know that they have been diagnosed, and so they feel that not taking the medicine and not addressing it, not dealing with things helps them to get by … I tell them that I've been here almost 20 years, and out of all the women that have come through this program, the large percentage of them that did take their medicine and seek therapy are doing well. We have a 65% success rate. So, the ones who did take their meds and got focused and got on track, they're doing well.” 

A recovering addict herself, Chatters-Walker is thriving. She’s a testament to the difference a determined spirit and support system can make. She has written three books, received the Directors Leadership Award from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and gotten to meet then-Director James Comey. 

Recommendations by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing

Chuck Ingoglia, President & CEO of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, the organization that created Mental Health First Aid at Work, outlines four steps in promoting mental and emotional wellness at work:
  1. Create a foundation of trust -- Mental health and substance use challenges can be hard to talk about, especially in the workplace. As an employer, it’s important to create a foundation of trust between management and employees so employees feel comfortable communicating their personal concerns to a supervisor and using available resources.
  2. Reduce the stigma -- High-performing teams can unintentionally isolate coworkers who may be feeling depressed or anxious. As an employer, it’s important to find ways to reduce the stigma around mental health. Talking about mental health concerns, stress management, and self-care openly can help employees feel more comfortable voicing their concerns and needs.
  3. Make wellness a priority -- Companies often provide health and well-being benefits to employees to encourage exercise, healthy eating, and leisure activities. But, do they talk about using these benefits to improve mental health as well? As an employer, it’s important to make wellness a priority and remind employees that building good, healthy habits can improve both physical and mental health.
  4. Get trained in Mental Health First Aid at Work -- Mental Health First Aid at Work training provides useful information and practical techniques on how to approach and support a colleague in distress to help your organization build a resilient and productive workforce. Reach out to  [email protected] for more information and #BeTheDifference in your workplace today.
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Read more articles by Julie Garisto.

A graduate of Largo High, USF, and the University of Tampa's Creative Writing MFA program, Julie Garisto grew up in Clearwater and now has a home in the Ocala National Forest. Between writing assignments, she's teaching English courses at Saint Leo University and other colleges. Julie has written arts features in Creative Pinellas' online magazine ArtsCoast Journal, Creative Loafing, Florida travel pieces  (Visit Tampa Bay and Visit Jacksonville), the Cade Museum, and features and reviews in the Tampa Bay Times. Her previous journalistic roles include arts and entertainment editor for Creative Loafing, staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, and copy editor for the Weekly Planet. Lately, she's been obsessed with exploring Florida's State Parks, small towns, and natural springs.