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HR Professionals Lack Training in Mental Health

By Noma Bruton posted 05-01-2016 23:31


One in five adults experiences a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. That’s the equivalent of 45.6 million people. A large proportion of them are in the workforce, leading to more than $60 billion in lost productivity annually. Clearly, mental illness is more than a public health issue—it’s a business issue.

You can do the math to estimate the impact to the business in which you work. If 20 percent of adults are experiencing a mental health disorder in any given year, how many employees does that equate to in your company? If those employees aren’t seeking help for their conditions, what is the potential impact to them, their co-workers, the workforce, and the bottom line?

With this information you would assume that most Human Resources professionals are adequately trained to identify and respond to mental health issues in the workforce.  You would be wrong to draw that conclusion.

Throughout my career as an HR professional and executive, I've been provided with  outstanding training opportunities by my employers in traditional HR functions.  But none of that training included expertise in mental health.  I received no training in this critical subject even though there were instances of mental illness, violence in the workplace and employee suicides on the job.  Lately, I've been conducting an unscientific polling of my fellow HR colleagues about their experience with mental health training and, so far, I've found no examples of HR professionals who have received training to respond to mental health issues in the workforce.  I'm unable to find reference to mental health knowledge as a required competency for certification as an HR professional.   

Most businesses today have first aid kits readily available to treat physical conditions at work. Many of us keep first aid kits in our cars, purses, briefcases or desks. We take CPR courses every few years to be prepared to help someone who may experience a heart attack in our presence.  Yet few businesses are taking action to improve the mental well-being of employees.

As a first line of defense against threats to employees’ well-being and productivity, HR professionals should be positioned to identify and respond early to employees’ mental health disorders. But most HR professionals are woefully unprepared to identify or help someone with a mental health condition—even though mental health problems in the U.S. are more common than heart, lung, and cancer diseases combined.

One of the first and most important things HR can, and should, do is to help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. Stigma arises from a lack of knowledge. For example, we would never think of referring to someone as “a cancer” or “a broken leg,” yet we frequently hear people called “a manic depressive” or “bi-polar.” As with other cultural changes, HR can lead the way in shifting the way people think about mental disorders.  But, HR cannot assume a leadership position in mental health until its professionals are educated about the topic.

When stigma is eliminated, people are less afraid to seek treatment for their condition. Despite the current prevalence of mental illness, only a third of those afflicted receives treatment, according to estimates.  And mental illness is treatable.  With the right training and knowledge, HR professionals can provide necessary leadership in reducing stigma and encouraging treatment.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve attended several educational courses dedicated to raising awareness of mental health issues and training people to identify and respond to mental disorders. All the courses I've attended are excellent programs designed to accomplish specific outcomes. For example, the LivingWorks’ SafeTalk program focuses on suicide prevention. Another program,  Emotional CPR (eCPR), trains people to assist others through an emotional crisis. Both programs were designed and are facilitated by dedicated mental health professionals.

Among the many courses I’ve investigated so far, the eight-hour Mental Health First Aid course is very applicable to an HR practitioner’s role. Managed by the National Council for Behavioral Health, the course focuses on improving mental health knowledge and skills. It’s designed to teach lay people methods of assisting someone who may be in the early stage of developing a mental health problem or in a mental health crisis. As with CPR training, the trainee is not expected to respond as a physician, but rather as an early responder. The course teaches participants:

  • The signs of addictions and mental illness
  • Impact of mental and substance use disorders
  • A five-step action plan to assess a situation and help
  • Resources and where to turn for help.

The program is designed for all people and organizations that make up a community—and a workplace certainly meets the definition of a community.  In many cases we spend more time at work with co-workers than with family and friends.

People who interact regularly with people, such as police officers, HR professionals, and health care workers, are encouraged to attend a Mental Health First Aid course.

To find a class near you, visit the Mental Health First Aid USA website.

Noma Bruton is Principal of Sagacity | HR.  You can reach her at

#MentalHealthFirstAid #WellnessBenefits #mentalhealth
1 comment



09-28-2016 23:32

Nice blog entries! It's still all too rare to see mental health in the workplace issues brought up in HR conversation.

In fact, it's one of the needs my company Workit Health was created to fill; specifically, helping people overcome addiction (check it out here: Keep up the good work! We'll be following.