Changing the mental health landscape

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By Karim Mamdani

The journey we have been on to increase awareness and eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness has been important, meaningful and, in many ways, essential to normalizing conversations around mental health.

The progress we, as a society, have made over the last decade has been tangible. Media campaigns and corporate investment are now societal norms helping make discussions about mild and moderate mental health issues more prevalent than ever before.

However, there is evidence that much more needs to be done.

Recently, the spotlight has been on the suicide deaths of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and renowned designer Kate Spade. This tragic news shook many. Neither had been overtly public about their personal struggles until it was revealed through their cause of death.

The loss of these two people is tragic and it has served as an igniter of conversations as many attempt to grieve the loss of two individuals whom they felt connected to.

The shock and awe of a celebrity suicide is understandable. They are characters wearing masks and we are only privy to a small piece of their lives. When larger pieces are revealed it can be overwhelming and difficult to rationalize.

These tragic events have re-energized calls for broader discussions about mental health and greater support for people who may be contemplating suicide. Both are important and should never be marginalized.

However, it’s time to elevate our efforts. We need to shift the focus from discussion to action.

We have the opportunity and ability to enact change that can improve the lives and prospects of the people who comprise our respective organizations.

How do we change the world? We start in our own backyards.

As leaders and employers, we can set out to change the mental health landscape in our organizations through a commitment to wellness, safety and workplace mental health. Healthcare is not immune to societal taboos and stigma, although they have been reduced as part of the global movement to bring mental health into the mainstream. However, there is a tangible difference between acceptance and action.

Wellness cannot simply be a buzz word in any organization. It has to accompany legitimate programs and resources that encourage everyone, regardless of role, to prioritize their mental health in an environment that is accepting, understanding and empathic.

This may sound like a monumental task to bring to life within an organizational structure.

However, resources such as Mental Health First Aid, The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, and employee and family assistance programs are among the notable resources available. They can help organizations begin the journey down the road to creating and maintaining a psychologically safe and healthy workplace.

Equally important is dedication of leaders and employers to embed these resources along with themes of acceptance and understanding throughout your organizational culture. Building and sustaining a desirable workplace culture requires unwavering consistency, commitment and focus. It is a long-term project that can have long-lasting impact on the lives of the people you rely on each and every day.

As leaders in healthcare, we need to be setting the standard for mental health in the workplace. We understand the issue better than anyone. We understand its devastating impact and know people, with the right treatment and support, can flourish despite being confronted by mental health challenges.

We can guide the way for our partners in both the private and public sector.

As we look at the broader issue of mental illness and mental health in society, we must challenge ourselves and our partners to do more and to be better. Public outrage and shock is understandable when a person’s struggles are revealed through tragedy. But it’s not enough and it doesn’t guarantee real, impactful change.

If the desire is to change the manner in which mental illness, suicide and treatment is viewed on more rapid trajectory, we must strengthen the commitment of our respective organizations to creating safe and healthy workplaces that others can model and replicate.

Karim Mamdani is President and CEO at Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences.