May is Mental Health Awareness month, and as ICMA and its members observe this month, it is important that you as local government managers are doing your part in providing mental health support to both your employees and yourself. While it is recognized every year, the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Month is “You are not Alone.” Fitting, seeing as the mental health implications of COVID-19 have many of us feeling more alone than ever. While each community is experiencing COVID-19 at varying levels of severity, we can all agree that it has been an overwhelmingly lonely year. Between remote work, closed restaurants, travel restrictions, and so much more, all the social outlets outside of our homes that we once enjoyed without a second thought, are now sparsely accessible. If you missed your chance to attend ICMA’s “Coming Out of the Darkness” webinar, hosted by two champions for mental health advocacy, Helaine Zack and Thomas Wieczorek, then here are just a few of the powerful takeaways that you can add to your mental health toolbox.
Identify the Problem
Those in local government leadership roles often place so much focus on caring for the well-being of their community, that they neglect their own well-being in the process, especially regarding mental health. While it may not be abundantly clear at first glance, the need is there. More than 800,00 people die by suicide each year, and of that number, members of our local government leadership are overwhelmingly impacted. For example, according to Thomas Wieczorek, director, Center for Public Safety Management LLC, both police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. This could easily be attributed to the stigma surrounding mental health in these positions of power, which is often “asking for help = weakness,” when that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Make Sure the Necessary Resources Are Available
The first step in curtailing this damaging stigma is providing ample resources for mental health. Local government leaders are responsible for a lot, and for some, that weight can be silently unbearable and overwhelmingly lonely. Help lift that weight by making sure employee assistance programs (EAPs) are prevalent and the resources they provide are widely known. If your team isn’t fully aware of the services their employee assistance program has available to them, then they will be far less likely to utilize the program when they need it. If you feel that your EAP has been underutilized and underpromoted, then you can start to turn the tide by better familiarizing yourself with the importance of EAPs; we found this article by IBH Population Health Solutions helpful in doing so.
Normalize the Conversation and Build Trust
The final and arguably most important takeaway is to normalize talking about mental health in the workplace. This can come in the form of group discussions with your team, presentations from your EAP, or one-on-one discussions with team members who display even a seemingly small change in behavior or performance. While having these discussions may sound uncomfortable, they are crucial in building trust in your employees and breaking down those damaging stigmas surrounding mental health. The more your employees trust you, the more likely they will be to seek or accept help when they need it.
Remember that these steps towards creating better practices surrounding mental health do not just apply to your employees, but to you as well. Much like oxygen masks on a plane, when addressing mental health concerns, you should always “apply your oxygen mask before helping others.” There is no better example for your team than seeing their own leader seeking help for his or her mental health concerns. Transparency and open conversations are key, and we are far past the age of masking our mental health. Mental illness is a silent killer, and it is up to us to take a stand and change the stigma.