The Business Side of Mental Health

Large self-funded corporations are the target of an effort to expand mental health benefits. As Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports, the Mental Health Association of Greater Houston is trying to convince business owners their insurance plans should cover things like depression and counseling.

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A couple hundred people are gathered at the River Oaks Country Club, where psychiatry and behavioral health experts are explaining the science of mental health. But the men and women in the audience aren't scientists or health professionals. They're human resources directors, office administrators and business owners. MHA Board President Maureen Hackett says the message they have for businesses is mental health coverage is cost-effective.

"Because of chronic disease, diabetes and heart, people do suffer from stress and depression. If we can prevent and we can get to the heart of the matter from the beginning, chances are we can lower the costs for chronic diseases. So we have found that an increase in the medical benefit for mental health is really just one percent, it's not a whole lot. But there's a tremendous decrease in absenteeism."

There are 16 public corporations in Houston that have voluntarily equalized their mental health benefits. Dr. Hyong Un is the national medical director for Aetna Behavioral Health. He says companies that provide mental health parity not only reduce absenteeism, but they may also have fewer disability claims and improved safety records.

"We know that access to good behavioral health services have impact both in the workplace and in people's personal lives. Particularly pertinent for this conference, in the workplace we know that good behavioral health service leads to healthy and more productive employees. So we need to think about behavioral health and healthcare really not as a cost, but as an investment in people's health and people's successes in the workplace."

Mental health experts say one of the main reasons more companies don't offer mental health benefits is the stigma attached to mental health disorders. Dr. John Oldham is the chief of staff at The Menninger Clinic and Baylor College of Medicine's executive vice chairman of Psychiatry. He says 20 or 30 years ago people were ashamed to admit they had cancer. Today, they're ashamed to admit they have depression.

"Brain disorders are no different than medical disorders of many other kinds. And they're enormously treatable. We're trying to sort of get the world to step up to the plate, understanding that these are disorders that we have various degrees of inherited risk for. We, if we encounter stress, may all be at risk to develop one form or another."

That's why the Mental Health Association is attacking the issue from a scientific and business standpoint. If they can explain the science behind mental health disorders and prove that coverage has a positive impact on the bottom line, they're hoping corporations will view mental health parity as a sound business decision. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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