Collaboration between our business and health care communities has always been vital to advancing the well-being of North Carolinians. When the North Carolina Healthcare Association (NCHA) recently invited me to join a panel with leaders from Novant Health, Cone Health, UNC Health, and the North Carolina Psychiatric Association for a virtual town hall on mental health, I was eager to participate in this critical conversation and provide the perspectives of North Carolina’s job creators and employers. I was also proud to share your stories; you make employees’ holistic health the top priority every day.
We’ve heard from many of our members across industry sectors that they’re applying employee wellness strategies now that will become permanent policy, like remote work options, flexible schedules, enhanced mental health / telehealth benefits, and support groups within the workplace setting. Job creators are being proactive in finding ways to prevent employee burnout like offering resilience training, mental health days, and resources for their families. Employers are expanding HR programs such as EAPs to address stress management and sleep improvement, as well as providing mental health services for dependent children.
The NCHA town hall, held on October 7 and moderated by Dr. Nisha Mehta, further revealed the significant role employers play in championing the mental health of North Carolinians. Our business community faces a sharp rise in employee anxiety as people transition back to the workplace. Life-work balance, job security, caregiving responsibilities, and financial pressures are additional stressors, which can lead to major health issues like depression and addiction. As you continue being proactive in finding short- and long-term solutions for helping your employees access mental health support, I hope to offer insight I gleaned from last week’s town hall.
Innovation is key to prevention and early intervention.
More than 450,000 adults and young adults in North Carolina have a serious mental illness. Mental illnesses are treatable, and many mental health issues can be prevented. Yet, more and more North Carolinians find themselves in the emergency room suffering in a crisis state because they didn’t receive early care. Rural regions are enduring extensive shortages of psychiatrists, therapists, counselors, and social workers – 94 of North Carolina’s 100 counties lack these mental health professionals.
The panelists passionately agreed that telehealth technology has been the gamechanger for expanding access to behavioral health care these past 18 months, especially across rural communities. When North Carolinians have access to virtual medical services, for physical and mental health care, providers can deliver preventative care – reducing ER visit costs and improving treatment outcomes. According to Robin Huffman, executive director of the North Carolina Psychiatric Association, “no show” rates have plummeted with the climb of telehealth; patients are attending their telepsych appointments.
Health care providers statewide are incorporating innovative intervention tools such as artificial intelligence and mobile apps to screen patients’ risk factors for PTSD, substance use disorder, suicide, and other psychiatric concerns. One of the apps mentioned during the town hall, Ginger, provides patients with on-demand video therapy, virtual psychiatry sessions, and text-based behavioral coaching.
By investing in and promoting enhanced telehealth benefits, employers are cultivating a proactive mental health culture for their employees and their families. The NC Chamber updated its medical package with a new telehealth benefit, so that staff seek treatment early for stress, depression, anxiety, addiction, or another concern. We must educate, encourage, and empower our employees when it comes to asking for mental health help. North Carolina’s job creators and employers are on the front line for getting employees, and even their families, to take the first steps on the path to preventative care and early detection.
Stop stigma by integrating mental and physical care throughout communities.
As Dr. Archana Kumar, medical director of behavioral health services and director of psychiatry residency program at Cone Health, discussed at the town hall, one way to end the stigma preventing people from receiving mental health services is by integrating psychiatric care with physical exams and other primary care visits. Businesses can collaborate with health providers to endorse local wellness centers, where mental health professionals join forces with primary care practices. Job creators can also partner with mental health professionals to educate supervisors and other employees to recognize the signs of common workplace mental health conditions and enable those employees to act as informed advocates.
Biggest barrier to seeking support is lack of knowledge.
One comment, from Barbara-Ann Bybel, director, psychiatry services, and vice chair, psychiatry hospital services and integration at UNC Health, really stood out to me. She said that even employees working in the health care field don’t always know where to go for behavioral health services. And, stigmas, particularly surrounding addiction and seeking treatment for substance abuse, are still strong among medical professionals. Employers are essential partners for the health care community. They can establish an environment where employees know how to find mental health care. Employers can present a safe space where their staff understand that discussing and seeking treatment will never be held against them.
North Carolina’s job creators realize the impact they can make within their companies and communities by fostering mental health conversations and furthering information on how to receive help. The NC Chamber will continue to collect and share the good work businesses are implementing to empower employees with mental health tools and support.
Additionally, as we care for our employees, we must remember to also take care of our own mental health needs. Thank you for always ensuring people are priority.
Gary J. Salamido
NC Chamber President and CEO