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Safeguarding Mental Health in the Workplace

New York, NY – Before going forward, I would like to say that the views in this column do not reflect any specific person, company, organization or union membership as a whole. This column is based on personal experience regarding mental health and mental health topics in the workplace. The following views are not intended to argue whether mental health is receiving the proper attention.  Instead, my objective is to discuss the recent push to make mental health a priority in the workplace. However, as someone on the forefront of this initiative, I would like to share the challenges I have faced with team leaders, management and fellow workers whose opinions conflict with the very nature of these programs. 

Ben Kimmel.

It is clear that mental health can be a sensitive topic, which is why people are often guarded when discussing the topic. I have met with supervisors and managers who become defensive and claim that they are fully prepared to handle an onsite mental health crisis. I have heard from the NIMBY people [Not In My Backyard] who say this is not a problem in their community, nor is it a problem amongst their work staff. I have given basic mental health presentations in corporate settings where complaints were made to human resources because workers did not believe mental health should be discussed at work. 

However, mental health and mental health first aid is a valuable curriculum that helps both productivity and workplace safety. The intention is not to overstep or take the place of therapists. This does not open anyone up to unwanted vulnerabilities. Instead, the goal is to provide a sense of interpersonal understanding. The focus on mental health does not mean that we are seeking to train people with on-the-job psychology. However, on more than one occasion and in the simplest context, I have been told, “We don’t need this here.”

Oh, but we do. And here’s why.

We are taught basic lifesaving measures and CPR, which means that we can assist or help resuscitate a person in crisis. Many work sites have an AED (Automated External Defibrillator) which is used in the case of an emergency cardiac arrest. However, training to use this device does not train someone to perform open heart surgery, nor does CPR qualify the average person as a doctor. Instead, the training is meant to helpf prevent a fatality.

Speaking of preventable deaths, suicide and overdose prevention rank high on this list. Similar to the AED machine and CPR techniques, basic mental health training can support possible interventions and boost active listening skills that will help provide a plan that can assist during a person’s mental health crisis. 

So, what are the problems I’ve encountered? I have experienced different challenges and faced different biases. There are those who generationally define mental health as too personal to be discussed in open settings. There are other people who find the subject of mental health hits too close to home. 

According to Mental Health First Aid (USA), 1 in 5 people will experience a mental health crisis in a given year. As someone with boots on the ground, I can say that this number is inaccurate. Furthermore, it would be more accurate to explain that 5 out of 5 people will experience a mental health crisis in a given year.

Depression is very real and anxiety disorders are very common. Especially now with Covid and Covid-related stressors, the number of overdoses, suicides and domestic violence cases have all increased. So, can a focus on mental health save everyone? Unfortunately, the answer is no. However, I can say that I have used my skills in mental health first aid more times than I’ve used CPR or the AED. As a matter of fact, I have never used the AED or CPR. But I have used the skills from my mental health training.

So, why the pushback? To be clear, I don’t know the answer to that.

I can only say that after the training, opinions change. Team leaders who saw this program as a threat, have now come to the understanding that the training is not a threat to their position at all. Instead, mental health training is a tool to solidify our strengths in the workplace. The basic premise is this: learn to address a person at risk, listen nonjudgmentally and help them seek the appropriate help – this is not a threat. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health or emotional challenges, please know there are people standing by to help you. And as I’ve said before, if you can’t find someone, send me an email. Perhaps we can find an answer together. 

Deal?

Ben Kimmel is a proud member of the IUOE Local 94, as well as an Author, Writer on thewrittenaddiction.com, Mental Health First Aid Instructor, Certified Addiction and Recovery Coach, Certified Professional Life Coach, and Peer & Wellness Advocate.  Ben can be reached at bennyk1972@gmail.com

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