Back in March I wrote a column called “Why mental health is a business imperative,” in which I suggested mental health matters to leaders and directors guiding organizations because our workforces are our greatest assets and our future. I received a flood of emails and calls from readers, team members and friends who told me the column hit home both professionally and personally. 


Some reported that as leaders they are seeing more employees grapple with stress, anxiety or behavioral issues than ever before and are still struggling to know how to respond. Some wrote because they are dealing directly with family members who have serious mental health issues and felt seen and heard by the column. Many shared personal stories.


Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, I am continuing to talk about this topic – with some good news, some bad news and some suggestions about what you can do to support mental health in your own workplace.


First, the good news: Leaders are talking about mental health more openly than I have ever experienced in my career. That’s heartening.


The bad news: The state of mental health across the country is getting worse, and Iowa is no exception. That means dialogue and action are more important than ever. 


What is the mental health landscape today? The recently released “2022 State of Mental Health in America Report” from the national nonprofit Mental Health America paints a bleak picture. Key findings from 2021 on a national level included the fact that over half of the 27 million adults in the U.S. with mental illness do not receive treatment, most youths with major depression do not receive any or consistent mental health treatment, both adults and youths in the U.S. continue to lack adequate insurance coverage, and rates of suicidal ideation and substance abuse continue to increase year over year. 


Those national statistics are alarming, but it is our own state’s statistics that give me the most serious pause. The study features a robust interactive national map that allows readers to drill down on each state for the 2021 and past years’ results, so I clicked on Iowa. My heart sank when I read that in all but one of the five categories measured, Iowa had declined in rankings since the prior year.


According to this report, out of 50 states and Washington, D.C., Iowa is 23 in ranking in Overall Mental Health, the same as in 2020. That includes adults with any mental illness (AMI), substance abuse disorder in the past year, thoughts of suicide, and adults with AMI who are uninsured or didn’t receive treatment or who reported unmet need or could not see a doctor due to costs. 


We held our overall middle of the pack ranking, but we plunged precipitously when looking at Adult Mental Health year over year. In 2020, Iowa ranked 2, and in 2021 we dropped to 19 in that category. Our Youth Mental Health rank also declined, from 12 to 22. The deterioration in Prevalence of Mental Illness ranking from 30 in 2020 to 36 in 2021 is alarming, as is the downswing in access from a ranking of 4 to 15. 


We are going the wrong direction.


You may be questioning what you can do or asking, “Where is the hope here?” But remember: As business leaders, we are taught not to rely on hope but on strategy. Leaders can take a strategic approach to mental health by starting where we have decision-making power – directly in the workplace – and to use our business influence to advocate for health and access to care in the public realm. 


You can make a difference in your own sphere, with strategy and actions both large and small. In my prior column, I offered ideas on how leaders can support mental health in the workplace.  Here are five additional ways you can take action on mental health in your own organization and community:


  1. Make overall health and mental health a priority in your workplace. Demonstrate your commitment through a comprehensive health and mental health care plan and appropriate wages, benefits and policies, all communicated from the top down.
  2. Break down barriers to care. Ensure your benefits are easy to understand and accessible and that employees have the time to seek and receive care. Be aware that individuals from underrepresented communities who face general barriers to health are also disproportionately affected by mental health issues and access to care.
  3. Support working caregivers. Those caring for children, family, disabled or elderly loved ones are more likely to face mental health challenges and may need more support. Flexibility, empathy and resources are needed.
  4. Listen, act and put your team first. Asking your employees about their mental health through surveys and interviews provides helpful information that can guide decision-making. Acting on that feedback shows your team that you value their input and that you genuinely care – which may not directly help an individual’s mental health, but certainly helps them to feel supported.
  5. Talk about and advocate for mental health. Internally, continue to discuss mental health, reduce stigma by normalizing the conversations, and urge your leaders and team members to seek the care or treatment they need. In the public sphere, use your influence to advance mental health funding and support for prevention, treatment and overall access to care.


While mental health has continued to decline nationwide and in Iowa, as business leaders we have a role to play in helping move the dial in the right direction. Use your leadership and influence to support your teams and their families. In doing so, we can care for our citizens and help safeguard our state’s future for everyone.