Health Advocate on EAPs and suicide prevention

Many leaders within the benefits space know mental health resources are now an essential offering — but more importantly, effective access can mean the difference between life and death.

According to the CDC, 132 Americans die by suicide each day and over half of Americans report being affected by suicide to varying extents. While talk of depression and suicide has long been considered taboo in the workplace, these topics are on the minds of many workers , whether it’s regarding loved ones or themselves, says Bert Alicea, psychologist and executive vice president of EAP and work/life services at Health Advocate, an employee assistance program resource for employers across the country.

“The goal is to create as many access points as possible,” says Alicea. “We want to make sure employees know it’s okay to not be okay.”

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Health Advocate provides EAPs and leadership training centered on mental health management. The EAPs typically include up to five free sessions with a mental health care provider that is within the employee’s insurance network, as well as a suicide prevention hotline number, where counselors and nurses with Behavioral health backgrounds are available to employees every day.

But in order for an EAP to be effective, it has to be visible. September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and Alicea and his team have been making an extra effort to promote mental health resources to employers. However, this work can be done outside of September, too — Alicea advises employers to provide monthly communication and awareness materials that bring attention to their EAP and the wide range of resources it provides. Whether it’s support for caregivers to relief for financial stress, EAPs can address many facets impacting mental health.

“We empower people with options and continually provide education and resources to the member beyond suicide awareness prevention month,” Alicea says. “Employees should know that if they are struggling with issues like depression, anxiety or social isolation, we’re only a phone call away.

Health Advocate’s EAPs also provide an anonymous sign-in for their website, where employees can take mental health tests and access resources without revealing their identities. Counseling does not have to be face-to-face either. Employees can connect via text, phone call or video chat.

However, EAPs cannot be the be-all, end-all solution, especially when it comes to an issue like suicide.

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For Alicea, one of the most common misconceptions he often hears surrounding suicide is that there weren’t enough warning signs. Rather, leaders often dismiss warning signs or feel too uncomfortable at the thought of acknowledging any mental “red flags.”

“There are usually significant warning signs, whether it’s mood swings, increased absenteeism, and presenteeism, substance abuse or sudden experiences of loss,” he says. “We can deal with these setbacks in life constructively or destructively.”

Alicea underlines the importance of leaders caring about their workers as people first — if they don’t, they are likely to not notice the warning signs before it’s too late. This means cultivating meaningful relationships with team members and being aware of temporary setbacks or personal hardships an employee is experiencing outside of work. This means knowing what resources are available to employees and encouraging them to take time for their mental health. Above all, it means not being afraid to have tough conversations.

“People are uncomfortable using certain words or asking point blank, ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself,'” says Alicea. “Our job is to create some level of comfort for managers to engage employees in these conversations.”

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Health Advocate provides resources for managers through their “manager assistant program,” encouraging leaders to call them if they find themselves struggling to help an employee deal with varying degrees of loss, whether it be divorce or a passing of a loved one.

“I’m actually trained in industrial and organizational psychology, and part of my job is to help managers and supervisors and leaders in organizations with the people skills they need to be effective at work,” says Alicea. “It’s about becoming an empathetic listener and [creating] a culture of caring.”

If an employee does lose their life, whether to illness, an accident or suicide, Alicea believes employers must have a strategy in place for their workforce. This means leaders have to be prepared to discuss how employees are coping and direct them to the right resources . Employers may also want to reconsider expanding their mental health care benefits, like offering more free sessions through the EAP.

“Six months after that situation happens, employees take a look back on and ask, ‘What did the company do for me?'” says Alicea. “What resources were available in my time of need?”

At the end of the day, awareness and resources may be what stands in the way of someone taking their life — and employers cannot shrink away from that, underlines Alicea.

“It’s not an easy topic,” he says. “That’s why I always encourage organizations to prepare for the storm before the storm actually comes.”


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