One in five children experience mental illness by the time they’re 18.
When Gale King, executive vice president and chief administrative officer for insurance and financial services provider Nationwide, lived in Memphis, Tennessee, she spent a year volunteering at a suicide-prevention hotline. Regularly speaking with people in crisis, including young people at high schools, underscored the importance of mental health awareness. “It’s my personal belief that at some point in our lives, we all need someone to walk along side of us and to provide support and encouragement where needed,” she says.
The Fortune 100 company’s passion for caring for its associates and its commitment to community, along with King’s awareness of the importance of this topic, are what make the company’s focus on having conversations and providing support around mental health a natural fit. And it’s what’s behind the company’s support of Nationwide Children’s Hospital On Our Sleevescampaign, a national movement dedicated to raising awareness of and addressing the stigma around childhood mental illness.
Openly talking about mental health is good for employees, as it helps to remove any stigma related to it; this, King notes, is also good for business. While it would be ideal for employees to be able to focus solely on their work when they’re at the office, that’s not necessarily realistic—if an associate’s child is struggling with any type of illness, it is sure to remain on their mind throughout the day.
“If you’re at work and have a child who is not well or in crisis it impacts your ability to be totally productive,” King says. “You can’t separate those things. We believe when we create an environment where our associates can receive the information, resources, and support they need, both professionally and personally, it enhances their effectiveness at work and their engagement to the company.
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Talking the talk
Since one in five children experiences a serious mental illness by the time they are 18, it’s all but certain there are families in the workplace who are dealing with it. The prevalence of mental health disorders in kids is alarming, says Dr. Nancy Cunningham of Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Big Lots Behavioral Health Services. However, not all children have the vocabulary to talk about their thoughts and feelings.
“There are different types of behavioral and mental health disorders,” Cunningham says. “Sometimes it’s hard for parents, teachers, and health providers to determine what the actual problem is because children are still growing and developing. While there is more awareness today, beliefs and attitudes can influence our thoughts. We might not look for or address issues if we don’t believe it’s something a child can experience.”
On Our Sleeves aims to give a voice to those kids and help the people they trust understand how they can be supportive. “It’s about raising awareness, and offering hope and concrete resources to families,” Cunningham says. “It’s also about mobilizing others to take action within their scope of influence: businesses, schools, and government. It’s about getting all of us to advocate on behalf of kids.”
Kids struggling with mental health issues, particularly those in the throes of adolescence, might be ashamed, embarrassed, or confused to talk about what they are going through. “Some kids talk about feeling like they have to wear a mask, to pretend that everything is okay even when it’s not,” Cunningham says. Parents, too, often feel the stigma around their child’s mental illness. The On Our Sleeves movement is also geared towards them, to address their sense of shame. Psychiatric disorders are not a parent’s fault.”
That’s one of the myths of childhood mental illness that Cunningham says she hopes On Our Sleeves can help dispel. “There’s a belief that psychiatric problems are the result of personal weaknesses, or bad parenting. That’s not true,” she says. “There are certain things parents can do that are more helpful to children as they develop, and obviously abuse and neglect have a profound influence on children, but bad parenting as people think about it doesn’t cause mental illness.”
Other myths include the incorrect belief that therapy is a waste of time for kids, when, in fact, evidence-based therapy can be very effective in helping to manage and treat the symptoms of behavioral and mental health disorders. Cunningham says she also hears from people who are afraid of psychiatric medications. “You wouldn’t be concerned about kids taking medications for diabetes, cancer, or seizures,” she says, pointing out that certain mental illnesses are best treated when they include medications in the treatment plan, as well.
It’s also incorrect—and can be dangerous to believe—that kids will outgrow a mental illness. “The opposite is more likely to be true,” Cunningham warns. “They’re more likely to develop more severe symptoms over time that end up being more difficult to treat.” Intervening early can help slow or halt a mental illness so that it doesn’t progress.
It’s important for parents to convey positive information about mental illnesses to their child. “We want them to project hope that things can get better, and that there are effective treatments that can help,” Cunningham says, stressing the importance of being open and honest with kids about their illness. “We want children to understand that a mental illness is not their fault, but is their responsibility to manage—and that their family is there to help them do that.
“It’s important for parents to build a team they can lean on as they work to support their child through their mental illness,” Cunningham continues. That includes specialists who can provide behavioral-health–specific care, but it also includes working with a pediatrician and staff at the child’s school. Trusted family members and friends can help ease the burden, as well. “Just like we rally around a child with physical illness, we want to rally around a child who has a mental illness,” Cunningham says.
King hopes Nationwide can be a part of that support system for its employees. “When any organization says that something matters, it legitimizes it,” she says. “It encourages other people to get involved. The more we can talk about our support, the more our associates know how they may be able to solicit that support.”
The goal, King says, is to integrate awareness of mental health into the day-to-day operations of the company, and normalize conversations around these issues. “If we can change one person’s life because we have removed stigma around mental health, we’ll have been successful.”
This article was created for and commissioned by Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
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