October 6 through October 12 was Mental Illness Awareness Week in the U.S., and October 10 was World Mental Health Day; an international day focused on eliminating stigma and advocating for effective treatment and self-care. The Merkle Americas Diversity & Inclusion Mental Health Pillar spearheaded efforts across Merkle offices to educate and foster positive mental health practices throughout the month of October and beyond.
Our Charlottesville office welcomed speaker Joanna Jennings, a licensed clinical social worker with eight years of experience in the Charlottesville, VA nonprofit sector. She currently works in the community relations department at Region Ten Community Services Board and is passionate about community-based mental health and trauma-informed care.
Jennings took a three-pronged approach to her topic, focusing on the historical, clinical, and practical elements of mental health. She began with some eye-opening statistics: 20% of the population has a mental health disorder, with 6% of adults experiencing a serious mental illness in a given year — and these numbers are probably under reported. Mental health problems have been widespread for a long time, but appropriate treatment has only recently started to develop. In Virginia, the de-institutionalization movement and antipsychotic drugs didn’t originate until the 1950s, and the eugenics movement, which advocated for forced sterilization, wasn’t repealed until the 1970s. Today, community services boards like Region Ten (which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year) are vital in delivering effective and accessible services to those who are living with mental health issues. In fact, I received counseling at Region Ten when I lived in Charlottesville, and I can personally attest to the organization’s amazing quality of service.
During her speech, Jennings offered a fascinating look at the neuroscience behind current therapeutic practice, and how we can channel that knowledge toward self-care. In treating patients who have experienced trauma, many mental health professionals attempt to connect the creative and abstract right brain (where trauma is recorded) with the logic-oriented left brain. A new initiative is to help the patient conceptualize and describe the trauma in words, to make it concrete and, therefore, more manageable. There are a number of ways to make this connection between the right and left brain, and their applications are by no means limited to coping with trauma. Jennings also introduced grounding techniques such as mindfulness meditation, playing with a fidget spinner, eating hot and sour candy, listening to music, or tracing a pattern on a piece of paper, that can help relieve stress by engaging the senses.
King of Prussia Office
In the same spirit, the King of Prussia office organized a mindfulness tea party on World Mental Health Day. Toward the end of the day, employees were invited to a café space in the office building to sample various teas and snacks, color, play games and chat over a relaxing playlist. They were also encouraged not to bring their phones. The event was a true team effort. Employees contributed delicious craft tea, kettles, coloring books, crayons, tabletop question cards, Mad Libs games and more, and almost everyone in the office was in attendance. I left feeling rejuvenated, closer to my co-workers, and confident in my ability to center myself — and I think I speak for everyone involved when I say the event was a great success.
Our New York office celebrated in a similar manner by decorating mugs with inspirational messages and offering them for communal use.
In addition to these office initiatives, Merkle offers the LifeMatters Employee Assistance Program to all employees, free of charge. This program offers myriad articles and advice on topics ranging from substance abuse, to emotional resilience, to financial planning, as well as free in-person therapy sessions (5 appointments per incident). Studies show that three to five sessions can be effective in staving off a crisis when there is an emerging issue. Using this program is a great way to practice mental health maintenance, just like you would go for a run or visit a doctor for a check-up. Participation is completely confidential. The only information that Merkle tracks is the number of employees who use the service. I highly encourage all Merkle employees to take advantage of this great resource, regardless of the status of your mental health.
For people everywhere, there are a host of similar services and more popping up every day, big and small, both online and offline. So, why do so many people in need of help still not seek the help they need? A big reason is that widespread stigma pertaining to mental illness still exists. Many people feel ashamed of their mental health problems or try to brush them aside as inconsequential; just something to be endured. At Merkle, we know that many people grapple with their mental health at one point or another, and there’s absolutely no shame in acknowledging that. The language we use to talk about mental illness matters more than you might think. Talking about mental illnesses like diseases, rather than defining traits, can go a long way toward reducing stigma. For example, it is better to say that someone has a bipolar disorder rather than to say that a person is bipolar. Whether you have a mental illness or not, it’s crucial to step back and examine your mental health from time to time, recharge yourself through grounding techniques such as mindfulness, and practice self-care.
Merkle is planning to host another mental health awareness event in May 2020. Additionally, by next year the Diversity & Inclusion Council will shift to align with DAN’s Inclusion, Diversity & Impact strategy. This means that the current D&I pillars will help kickstart DAN’s new Business Resource Groups. Within the DAN BRGs, the Mental Health Pillar will be consolidated with the Disability Pillar to form the new Enablement BRG. While the structure will change, Merkle’s unflagging commitment to mental health certainly will not. We all stand to benefit from being more informed, open with others, and in touch with ourselves.