Doctors don’t have to be mental health experts to be mental health advocates

Lack of providers, and stigma are barriers to seeking needed care, but meaningful conversations can help.

Not every doctor has to be a mental health expert to help colleagues, staff, and patients improve their mental health.

Mental health isn’t just about people with mental illness, which may be about 5% of people, said Lia Spohr, MPH, DABLM, clinical director in the Texas offices of employee-consulting firm Holmes Murphy & Company. Spohr presented, “Creating a Culture in which Mental Well-Being is Ok,” during the 2022 Medical Group Management Association Leaders in Medical Practice Conference.

Instead, everyone has mental wellness, which exists in a spectrum of four categories that can change by day, hour or moment, depending on circumstances, Spohr said. Aside from mental illness, other people may suffer or show functional impairments due to severe stress, depression, or self-medication.

Most people, an estimated 75%, live and work each day with moderate mental health, coping with the normal stresses of life that can be better managed. Spohr said the goal is to support a general transition for everyone toward prosperity, and to be in a wonderful place mentally and physically in life.

One Gallup poll showed a national regression lagging from 2019, when 76% of people said their mental health was excellent, to 2021, when that number dropped to 34%. Spohr said it was the biggest decline in lifespan, due to factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s controversial politics and societal unrest.

While it is clear that more people can use help, the national average waiting time for behavioral health services is 48 days. There is a shortage of providers on the list of reasons why people don’t seek help, but there is stigma too – a negative perception that makes someone think less about the person, or to stereotype or categorize a person because of a condition.

Doctors and health care professionals can help overcome this by becoming advocates who are willing to do three things:

  • Notice changes that are unusual or unfamiliar to anyone.
  • Talk to that person, check in and tell them you’re interested.
  • Act, by offering to connect that person to appropriate services and support.

Advocates don’t have to suggest diagnoses or treatment options, and Spur used a medical analogy to describe the role. Not everyone is a cardiologist, but many people learn CPR so that they can help others if needed.

Likewise, not everyone has to become a mental health expert. Spohr said they can engage others in meaningful conversations.

Her advice:

  • Keep asking. Questions don’t have to be complicated or overwhelming to start a conversation.
  • be realistic. Be honest, describe what you hear, and ask the person to clarify if this is what they mean.
  • Be relevant and don’t worry about what you’re going to get. The goal is not to solve the problem, but to listen, show interest, and help the person feel heard and reduce loneliness, so that they feel less stressed.

In health care, clinicians and leaders must remember that an entire person comes to work every day, with concerns about their careers, their finances, social and emotional relationships, community involvement and physical health, Spoor said.

Leaders must gather information and help employees understand what resources are available, starting with employee health benefits, and other possible resources such as health and wellness, weight-loss programs, advocacy, and caregiving services.

One easy resource, Spohr said, is the new 988 National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, which launched in July.

Leaders must also be practical because not every solution requires a new vendor software or website. For example, if a worker is stressed because of a family situation, help could be as simple as allowing time or flexibility for companies to start 30 minutes late, and then make up the time later in the day, she said.

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