In recognition of World Mental Health Day and in support of Mayo Clinic’s Executive Health Program, FibroGen‘s Jim Schoeneck invited The National Maternity Hospital’s Dr. Rhona Mahony, Afea Care Services’ Esha Oberoi, and Mayo Clinic’s Craig Sawchuk Ph.D., L.P. to weigh in on the status of mental health from their personal and professional points of view.

Regardless of industry, position or work environment, these experts explored manageable ways to keep a focus on mental health and important things to keep in mind.

A COVID Bright Spot: The Emergence of Telehealth Acceptance and App Access

While no one wanted a global pandemic to occur, a bright spot throughout the past 18+ months is the acceptance of telehealth appointments. A change driven by necessity? Yes, but it has been a beneficial change for countless patients, especially in the mental health space.

“You’ll never replace that face-to-face, one-on-one treatment for patients and those patients who require admission to hospitals,” says Dr. Mahony. “But increasingly we realize how much can be done using telehealth.”

Because telehealth is also a valuable tool for under-resourced health care providers, Oberoi says it is a trend we’ll see continue long past pandemic restraints.
“Every crisis has some opportunity. We’ve seen a real confidence in telehealth and virtual care where traditionally, we have not utilized technology to that extent”, says Oberoi. “I think when we look at the health constraints, the demand of mental health services, and the rise of mental health with a very stretched workforce, virtual care has been extremely positive, especially in rural and regional communities.”

She also points to the positive impact of the more than 10,000 apps focusing on mindfulness and self-care that have emerged globally.

“What an app does is bring the therapist to your home. It’s on-demand, 24 hours a day. It’s discreet, and it breaks down a lot of those barriers of physically leaving home,” she says of the disruptive technology. “Ultimately, it’s going to be patient- and consumer-driven as opposed to system-driven, which is how we’ve traditionally operated in health care.”

While telehealth appointments and self-care apps increase mental health care access for many, Mahony notes that these technologies can leave behind those in low socioeconomic groups, those who don’t have laptops, internet connections and smartphones, specifically.

For Dr. Sawchuk, new technology means an increased need for professional oversight.

“One of the things we always want to keep an eye on is quality control, and I think that is one of the challenges that we always run into in any consumer area,” he says. “There are a lot of things that can be called therapy or therapeutic, but do we know that there is an evidence base that’s associated with it?”

Technology is Great, but Stigmas Still Need Work

Despite increased access to mental health care, Dr. Mahony shares that in many places, including Ireland where she practices, there is still a stigma around openly discussing your struggles.

“People still find it really difficult to talk about our bad feelings,” she says. “We have put a lot of energy and time into leveraging technology, and we have to divert that into the preventative space,” says Dr. Mahony.

Dr. Sawchuk points to his own work structure at Mayo. Instead of psychologists being seen as a specialty service or separate outpost, he and his staff are fully integrated into the primary care office-part of conversations and protocols when patients first arrive. Because primary care and pediatrics are the most common doorways that patients enter health care, this structure allows for more early intervention, he adds. The cross pollination between medical specialties also helps to break down mental health stigmas, especially as younger generations of interns and residents begin practicing.

“There is always going to be more room to grow in terms of helping reduce stigma and improving access and engagement in mental health services,” says Dr. Sawchuk. “But there definitely has been positive movement in that direction.”

“At the end of the day, it is going to depend on how society values and deals with mental health,” adds Dr. Mahony. “And that means governments investing properly in programs, and it means all of us wrapping around each other and saying, ‘it’s OK.’”

Self-Care Modeling Trickles Down

When it comes to encouraging self-care and focusing on mental health in the workplace, executives and leaders have a unique opportunity to influence their team by simply sharing their own personal practices.

Oberoi shares that for the last five years she has integrated a daily meditation practice for at least one hour.

“I’ve regulated, to a huge degree, my emotional health,” she says. “It allows me to calibrate my thinking and connect with my heart. Connecting with my grief, sorrow and heartache and letting go of it allows me to bring in the better version of myself each day.”

For Dr. Mahony, she finds solace in getting in touch with nature through running, but she also leans on support from her people.

“It is all about close, trusted mentors,” she says. “Talking to them in the darkest hours and being absolutely honest about where I am. That’s been the most helpful.”
Dr. Sawchuk says the lowest hanging fruit that he encourages and models for his employees when it comes to self-care is a good sleep schedule. For him, that and deliberately seeking out humor makes all the difference.
“Our brains are just naturally hard-wired for threat, and we are marinating in threat everywhere all the time,” he says. “So, take some time throughout the day and be intentional when we do have some downtime to try to cultivate humor in our lives.”

How to Make Your Workplace a Welcoming Mental Health Space

Outside of modeling healthy behaviors, there are ways big and small to create a mental health-focused environment in the office. Oberoi weaves wellness into most aspects of her company and prioritizes it from the start of each employee’s time with her company, making sure they provide a range of offerings.
“Self-care is so unique to every individual. It’s about looking after your people so they can deliver the best care for patients and clients,” she said.
Dr. Sawchuk emphasizes carefully crafted institutional messaging that avoids blaming employees for any personal shortcomings that contribute to stress or poor mental health.

He also points to benefit packages that encourage time off and providing free resources that remove the barriers of care, whether they are general self-care app subscriptions or personalized online interactive modules such as the one he and his team created for the Mayo staff to combat insomnia during the pandemic.

Dr. Mahony suggests hosting events that create levity, such as the yearly pantomime her hospital hosts. She also highlights the importance of physical spaces where employees, regardless of professional rank, can come together, get to know one another and share challenges, successes and even stressors.

Although our experts practice varied means to alleviate stress in the workplace, all of them agreed that recognizing talent, uplifting employees and nurturing potential are key to creating a work environment that makes mental health a priority.

“When people are scared or uncomfortable, their quality of care and production is reduced,” says Dr. Mahony. “Yes, we have technologies and yes, we will have protocols and systems. But at the end of the day, every organization is a function of its people – how they belong and how supported they feel – so they can really reach their full potential.”

About Mayo Clinic’s Executive Health Program

For more than 50 years, the Mayo Clinic Executive Health Program has been leveraging the full depth and breadth of its nationally recognized expertise to help CEOs, presidents, business owners and their executive teams maintain good health. This unique program is designed to help individuals access Mayo Clinic preventive care through a focused, efficient, individualized experience and ultimately gain more healthy years doing what they love in their personal and professional lives.