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Perspective: The High ROI of Smarter Mental Health

Realization grows about benefits of more robust behavioral health care

By Mark Green

We are making noticeable progress in lowering the stigma attached to mental or behavioral health issues. And it is opening the door to understanding that many conducts long looked down upon as character or personality flaws are addressable maladies.

It’s a start. And we all will benefit by acting with intention to discuss reforming current best practices.

It is said tongue-in-cheek—but with much accuracy—that rather than a mental health-care system we have a mental sick-care system built around crisis. We have evolved a system of mental health resources that deploy only after illness has fractured a family, damaged workplace relationships, caused an arrest or produced tragedy that can never be undone, such as permanent injury or death.

A shift to cultivate and maintain mental health rather than bandaging the wounds would save taxpayers, stockholders and business owners great cost while improving everyone’s quality of life. With better awareness of common problems and creating the means to treat behavioral health conditions earlier, we can shift from chronic into virtuous cycles.

Business-sector leaders deserve credit for their growing realization and advocacy that substance abuse disorder should be considered a medical condition to treat rather than a crime to be punished. The latter approach diminishes our most precious asset: our human capital, the vital workforce necessary to sustain and grow Kentucky’s economy.

Workforce quality and quantity are the primary fields of competition among all communities, states and countries for well-paying jobs that grow wealth. As population growth slows and average ages rise, we need as many residents as possible available and contributing to our workforce needs at their optimal potential.

There is an abstract cost when depression, anxiety, manic episodes or even autism spectrum issues create friction at work or home. There is indirect but concrete cost when behavioral health illness causes workplace conflict, disruption and low productivity. The huge direct concrete cost of mental illness is readily apparent to all who work in or around social services, criminal justice, courts and corrections systems.

And beyond the dollars, consider the impact on individuals and families. Consider the possible return on investment if we do better in our approach to mental health care and how we provide access to care.

A pair of prominent current event issues—call them problems or say they are opportunities—suggest areas for us to improve.

One is the growing realization that the disruptions required to stem COVID—especially not seeing family, friends, classmates and workmates—have caused depression for many. Let us improve our insight that mental health problems are a normal part of collective humanness—not to assume that everyone needs treatment but to know some do and that providing it benefits not only the individual but the community.

The second opportunity is rising demand for better engagement between law enforcement and the public, especially those whom statistics show are targeted too aggressively. Let us not defund police but find, fund and try methods of protecting public order that incorporate deeper insight into the role behavioral health plays in creating situations police are called to address. There is no easy solution, but an intentional effort to do better will pay off in better outcomes.

Attitudes change slowly, and it can feel like nothing is happening. But one thing the business sector knows it is that focused effort, innovation and work bring solutions. The ROI from improving our mental health systems will be off the charts.