Kaiser CEO Bernard J. Tyson on mental health issues: 'Nobody wants to talk about it'

In response to increased conversations around teen suicide and mental health, Bernard J. Tyson, chairman and CEO of Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente, argues a significant portion of America's mental health problems is due to the fact that no one talks about these issues.

"Most of us have [a mental health issue], or we're one degree from it," Mr. Tyson said at Fortune's Brainstorm Health conference in Laguna Niguel, Calif., March 19. "It's all around us, but nobody wants to talk about it." Mr. Tyson noted in nearly half of suicides — the leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 19 — individuals never indicated any sign they were thinking about the act.

In an effort to improve the health of patients at Kasier, one of the country's largest nonprofit health plans, Mr. Tyson implemented "Find Your Words," which aims to fight the stigma around mental health issues and shows people there are ways to ask for help with these problems.

Mr. Tyson is also addressing how health providers may separate mental and physical issues during care. Mental health issues are often the responsibility of separate providers with separate records. "We treat it differently," he said.

Now, teams are working psychiatry and behavioral health services into Kaiser's primary care practice. Patients are referred to behavioral health specialists for  stress and sleep issues as they would be referred to an orthopedic specialist for knee pain. "You start to treat the brain like an organ," Mr. Tyson said. "It's our hope that sooner or later we'll start talking about mental health as easily as we talk about diabetes and cancer."  

Beyond just speaking about it, Mr. Tyson suggests Americans work on improving the language used to discuss mental health. Mr. Tyson encourages people to adopt new terms for discussing mental health, such as "brain health" or "mental wellness."

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