Obama Administration Encourages Agencies to Talk About Mental Health

Pamela Hyde, head of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Pamela Hyde, head of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Cliff Owen/AP

The head of the Office of Personnel Management is encouraging agencies to talk to their employees about mental health.

OPM Director Katherine Archuleta and Pamela Hyde, administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, sent a June 19 memo to agency leaders promoting the federal government’s “effective and confidential” employee assistance programs, which provide access to mental health services and treatment for substance abuse to employees and their families.

“Individuals at risk may demonstrate an inability to make decisions, repeatedly miss deadlines, be late to work, or exhibit distractibility and a general lack of focus,” Archuleta and Hyde wrote. “We need to do everything we can to provide employees and their supervisors with tools to recognize impending problems and be able to respond appropriately.”

Archuleta and Hyde emphasized that agency leaders “can start a workplace conversation that will positively impact mental health and well-being.” Attached to the memo were fact sheets for federal supervisors and employees on suicide warning signs and where to find help, if they notice co-workers struggling.

The government’s push to foster a more supportive workplace is partly an effort to de-stigmatize mental health issues. Many people are afraid to seek help with depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other challenges, fearing it will adversely affect their jobs, relationships and reputations.

Employee assistance programs are voluntary, offering free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals and follow-up services to employees with personal or work-related problems. President Obama specifically mentioned employee assistance programs in a June 23 memorandum directing federal agencies to educate employees about workplace flexibilities and benefits. The memo encouraged agencies to expand and support their use of such programs, along with a range of other benefits designed to provide employees with a better work-life balance.

Obama last summer held a National Conference on Mental Health at the White House. The president and Vice President Joe Biden often have talked -- usually after an episode of gun violence -- about improving the mental health system in this country, making sure people get help when they need it, and rooting out the stigma associated with mental illness.

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