Collectively, it costs businesses hundreds of billions of dollars annually, and yet it is a subject rarely discussed. While workplaces often tout programs that support the physical well-being of employees, mental health is often just a footnote.

Last week, AspenPointe presented its annual Heroes of Mental Health Luncheon at The Broadmoor, where a spectrum of mental health issues was discussed, from substance abuse to depression and suicide.

Keynote speaker Dan Harris, Nightline anchor on ABC and co-anchor of the weekend edition of Good Morning America, talked about his own struggles with substance abuse that led to an on-air panic attack a decade ago. Harris said, after reporting from combat zones and dealing with his own feelings of inadequacy, he turned to cocaine and Ecstasy.

“Career was and is a big stressor. Your career, if you’re really invested in it, will always be a source of some stress and plotting and planning,” Harris said in an interview with the Business Journal. “It’s a question of balance. I found meditation was useful for drawing the line between useful worrying and not-useful worrying.”

Harris, who recently wrote the best-selling book “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge and Found Self-Help That Actually Works — A True Story,” said those voices, more often than not, are overly critical.

“There’s a certain amount of worrying you’ve got to do, but I think we tend to take it too far,” he said. “After going over for the 17th time the horrible ramifications of missing your flight or the misplaced comment to your boss — we aren’t able to drop the rumination.”

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‘Heavily stigmatized’

According to Clare Miller, director of the Virginia-based Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, depression alone costs American employers $210 billion annually.

“If you think about some of the symptoms with depression, which is very common in the workplace, there are deep feelings of sadness, loss of interest in activities someone once enjoyed, weight changes, trouble sleeping, loss of energy — these will have very real performance impacts,” Miller said. “Employees may have trouble making decisions or have a lack of interest in the actual work itself, where before they might have been passionate about it. Mental health will impact the quality and quantity of work.”

Miller said those in middle and upper management may be more prone to work-related mental health issues and, due to stigmas, are often the least likely demographic to seek help.

“There is a fear as one goes up the corporate ladder of being found out that they sought mental health care. … Sometimes individuals will totally circumvent processes because they don’t want anything on their … insurance saying they sought care. That’s an illustration of how heavily stigmatized these issues remain.”

To address stigma, Miller said those in leadership positions should personally initiate mental health programs and discussions.

“Connecting with one another and hearing stories about people successfully living with and overcoming illnesses, like we do with people recovering from breast cancer and heart disease — when someone in a senior position speaks out, that’s powerful,” she said.

Miller said there are tangible steps employers can take to improve workforce mental health. First, she said, be sure behavioral health care is available through health insurance packages. Miller added care should be easily accessible and incentivized to encourage use. Finally, she said it is important that the care is of high quality.

“Typically, it takes people more than a decade to reach out for help,” she said. “When they finally do, employers want to be sure that initial reaching out is met with great care.”

‘Better for everyone’

Rachel Clements is AspenPointe’s Mental Health First Aid Coordinator. The program provides various personnel — teachers, school resource officers, clergy, human resources departments — with mental health crisis recognition and response training.

“An HR director would go to a first aid class to learn how to respond during a physical health crisis and to learn about anti-flu initiatives. This is the same,” Clements said.

“We want HR directors and leadership teams within organizations to be able to recognize depression and anxiety. It makes their workplace healthier and leads to better employee productivity.”

Clements said participants have included software companies, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and school districts.

“We even did training for the [Colorado Springs] mayor’s office,” Clements said. “Physical health is great and we want to promote that. But mental health is just as important. Especially in the workplace, when it comes down to productivity.”

Clements added, however, that funding for mental health is scarce.

And that’s a significant problem, Miller said, because mental health issues tend to manifest during the teenage years.

Losing ground

Guy and Jane Bennett’s son Matthew, their only child, took his own life nearly 14 years ago. He was 17.

The Bennetts received this year’s AspenPointe Heroes of Mental Health recognition Oct. 1 for the work they’ve done to spread mental health awareness, as well as training others to recognize and act on signs of distress. Guy and Jane said important programs and interventions that once existed in school districts have taken a backseat.

“There are a variety of programs. Some are assembly-style,” Jane said. “But those drive-by assembly programs didn’t afford the child dealing with this issue with someone to respond to.”

“People are out there trying to do the right things,” Guy said. “It’s just that suicide is not a warm fuzzy thing people want to talk about. They don’t think it will ever happen in their family. It won’t happen in their school. They’re afraid if they talk about it, it will get someone thinking about completing suicide. That’s a myth.”

Miller said there has been some improvement in the way mental health is perceived on a national level.

“It’s getting better, but we still have a long way to go,” she said. “By and large, most employers would say themselves that stigmas are still very much in the workplace around this topic.”

Harris said various factors helped improve his mental well-being during the past decade.

Meditation was one.

“The reality is, if you’re going to talk about your internal life, it’s not flattering,” he said. “It’s a zoo in there. If you’re going to write a book about this, you have to really be honest. People are only mildly interested in my stuff.  A big source of relaxation for me both professionally and personally is that I told the biggest secrets I had and the sun rose the next morning.” n CSBJ