Leaders: Let's break the silence on mental health and our caregivers' well-being

September is Suicide Prevention Month — a critical time to raise our voices about our nation's growing mental health crisis and focus our efforts on solutions.

Last year saw a record number of deaths by suicide in the U.S., according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. As healthcare leaders, we have an opportunity — and a responsibility — to break the silence around mental illness and provide guidance on creating a culture of wellness, with multiple pathways to support, to save more lives. 

As the CEO of Providence's Well Being Trust and a geriatric psychiatrist for more than 15 years, I've seen firsthand how stigma compounds mental health struggles and stifles solutions. Stigma compels people to hide their mental health challenges and avoid seeking treatment, and is recognized by the CDC as a major risk factor for suicide. Healthcare leaders can start by talking openly about our own mental health challenges and encouraging the same from our patients and colleagues. 

Pandemic-driven workforce shortages, challenges with reimbursement, work-related stress, vicarious trauma and high caseloads put those working in the behavioral health field at high risk for burnout, which can be associated with depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Supporting the mental health of our patients and communities starts with taking care of our front-line caregivers. Meeting the needs of our caregivers is not just a priority — it is a precondition for delivering excellence in healthcare. Yet, many of our caregivers are the last ones to ask for or receive help. 

In partnership with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, we developed My Mental Health Matters, a component of Providence's No One Cares Alone employee well-being program that includes an online mental health "check-up" tool. With this tool, caregivers can take a confidential mental health assessment and get connected to support. Throughout 2022, caregivers engaged with the program 200,000 times — a testament to the volume of need and the impact screening can have on getting help to those who need it. 

We distilled our learning from this effort into a No One Cares Alone Playbook as a model for what's possible for other healthcare organizations to implement for their caregivers.

This kind of approach to screening should be embedded in the fabric of our care, beyond behavioral health settings. There should be "no wrong door" to finding support and receiving help. Much in the same way we screen patients for cancer preventatively, we must routinely screen for mental health concerns in healthcare settings so we can address them and prevent them from advancing. We need more healthcare leaders to advocate alongside us and forge partnerships in the movement to integrate behavioral health screening into primary care and other care settings. 

Alongside tending to our caregivers, at Providence we look to their guidance in supporting our patients and communities. We asked our caregivers to help us identify the greatest needs of their patients and communities, and based on their feedback, we recently invested $5 million in grants toward transformative programs that will advance mental healthcare access — from reducing mental health stigma among youth to expanding depression and suicide-risk screenings. We're working with schools, clinics and community organizations to make an impact on a local level. 

In 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD released an advisory about the youth mental health crisis. Nearly two years later, our young people are still struggling. To support the next generation, we invested in several youth initiatives including a new Work2BeWell youth mental health curriculum based on the acclaimed PBS documentary, "Hiding in Plain Sight." The curriculum will include hands-on lessons that will be made available to schools across the country. The program will launch in 2024 and is estimated to reach 150,000 students in its first two years. 

As leaders, it's critical we continuously listen to our patients and caregivers on the frontlines, learn from their feedback and adjust where necessary. Together, we can break mental health stigmas and work toward finding more comprehensive solutions. We must continue sharing what we learn along the way and partnering across sectors and communities, so everyone has a chance to live a long, healthy life.  

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