Breaking Down Barriers: A Comprehensive Guide to Integrating Mental Health into Your Equity Plan.

Let's explore the crucial role that mental health plays in creating truly equitable outcomes and argues that any equity plan that does not consider mental health is not a comprehensive one. It provides insights and examples of how organizations can prioritize mental health in their equity efforts.

Mental health is having a moment — at least at first glance.

During the first months of the pandemic last year, it seemed like every news outlet was blaring headlines about the impact of lockdowns on our mental health. Companies scrambled to offer their employees things like access to app-based therapeutic resources, more paid time off, and wellness stipends to try and prevent burnout. More than a year later, many of those companies are still trying out new ways to keep their people happy and healthy.

But as with any move that generates good PR for the powerful, it’s good to give all this “self care” corporate banner-waving a little scrutiny.

Mental health is still deeply stigmatized and widely misunderstood, so it follows that organizations — even when they intend well! — may not be dealing with it in the right ways. And one of the biggest missteps a company can make on mental health is failing to consider it in their DEI strategy.

July is the Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness of the specific and disproportionately challenging mental health experiences of Black, indigenous, and other people of color in this country.

Mental health is important for everyone. However, as with so many other disparities in our society like wealth and education, people of the global majority can experience disproportionately poorer mental health than their white counterparts. As equity and mental health both rise to prominence in our national conversation, it’s critical to not separate the two; racism has a profoundly negative impact on mental health for millions of people, and we can’t hope to achieve real and lasting equity without confronting that fact.

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On top of the population-wide risk factors such as financial stress, experiences of trauma, and genetic predisposition to mental illness, Black, Latinx, Asian-American, and indigenous adults experience structural and interpersonal racism that can have a significantly detrimental effect on their mental health. In fact, top public health organizations such as the CDC, the American Medical Association, and the American Psychological Association have declared structural racism a public health crisis in the United States.

Individuals from historically oppressed communities struggle with socioeconomic disparities that can prevent them from accessing care, language or cultural differences that can prevent them from connecting with mental healthcare workers (an especially salient point given that over 77% of mental health counselors are white), and mental health provider bias and discrimination that can further deepen racial trauma even when they can access care.

All of these barriers to accessing mental healthcare can prevent huge swathes of the most underserved population from getting help when they need it most. Organizations can’t fill in that gap, but they can be more aware of how underserved their employees from these various communities truly are in regards to mental health, and make sure to curate a workplace that prioritizes their mental safety and wellness.

Naming these unique risk factors for poorer mental health allows us to better understand how to confront them.

BIPOC is a broad umbrella for an incredibly diverse group of people with differing experiences of and relationships to structural and interpersonal racism and white supremacy, so it’s also important to be as specific and culturally relevant as possible when confronting specific individual experiences. But that need for specificity at an individual level shouldn’t stop companies from enacting broad mental health-positive policies and procedures that can benefit everyone.

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After the murder of George Floyd last year and the ensuing protests, thousands of companies suddenly faced a mental health crisis among their Black employees that laid bare how painfully ill-equipped they were to handle it. Most organizations’ mental health guidelines at this point — if they had them at all — centered on stress management techniques, anti-discrimination and anti-violence policies, and HR referrals.

But these policies are simply reactive, focused on responding to triggering incidents that can do lasting harm to a person’s mental health. A BIPOC-centered mental health approach in DEI encourages organizations to move away from reactive policies regarding discrimination and racial trauma and toward preventative policies and procedures that focus on creating safe, inclusive, and culturally-sensitive mental health-positive environments.

Any good DEI plan will emphasize listening to and understanding the concerns of the most marginalized employees first and foremost, and that applies to mental wellness too. Different individuals from different backgrounds will have lots of varying ideas on how best to create a safe and inclusive environment that prioritizes their mental health, and it’s incredibly important for organization leaders not to trivialize, generalize, or stereotype those individuals or their ideas.

The very first step towards a mental health-positive environment is committing to open communication based on mutual respect, and that means valuing everybody’s input — but giving priority to the people closest to the pain.

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Though all those folks might have lots of different ideas, some basic mental health-positive policies are proven to meet specific culturally-sensitive needs while benefiting everyone. Here are just a few ways you can make steps towards an inclusive mental wellness environment.

  1. Be flexible with your work-from-home policies. During the pandemic, many Black employees found that working from home substantially reduced their experiences of microagressions and other workplace racism. Black women, in particular, have reported feeling safer working at home from the reduced likelihood of both race-based and misogynistic discrimination and abuse.
  2. Give your employees access to mental healthcare. Making sure that your organization’s healthcare plan or your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) includes mental healthcare seems like a no-brainer, but mental health services are not included on some employer-sponsored insurance plans and frequently still wildly unaffordable even when they are. Interventions like EAPs or Health Savings Accounts can help employees better afford mental healthcare and help your organization save money.
  3. Normalize taking care of mental health and incentivize your employees to take advantage of mental wellness resources. Making mental health resources available is great, but as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t force it to drink. Mental illness is deeply stigmatized in many different communities, and simply providing the resources won’t magically get all your employees to use them. A mental-health positive DEI approach encourages organizations to normalize and incentivize their employees to take advantage of mental health resources. Normalizing it could look something like launching a company-wide campaign to destigmatize and talk about the importance of mental health, offering paid time off for mental healthcare appointments, having leaders set an example by talking about their own mental wellness routines. Incentivizing it can look like offering employees days off or health stipends in exchange for accessing resources.
  4. Create a mental wellness strategy and set benchmarks to evaluate how you’re doing on it. Lots of organizations say they prioritize mental health, but recent research shows that less than a third of these companies actually track and measure the value their employees are getting from their mental health strategy. Your organization’s leadership needs to take accountability for how you’re doing on employee mental wellness. Make sure that whatever form that accountability takes — whether it’s an internal audit, annual report, or external assessment — is available to everyone and open for feedback to improve your strategy going forward.
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Creating a mental health-positive environment is already hard enough in a society that doesn’t really value it, but it’s even more challenging to create one that is also culturally sensitive. You may encounter some bumps in the road, and that’s okay — equity isn’t an endpoint as much as it is the process along the way. As long as you recognize that prioritizing mental health is non-negotiable — especially the mental health of your most marginalized employees — and let that principle guide you, you’ll do wonders for your people, for your organization, and for yourself.

Interested in integrating mental wellness into your DEI strategy but don’t know where to start? Connect with our Equity Innovation Studio today to see how we can help you cultivate a mental health-positive workplace.