Executive for Mental Health of America of Indiana discusses recent developments in efforts to advocate for mental wellness

by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not-for-profit News

With the recent approval of a $100 million Senate bill, Indiana is making inroads in providing much needed mental health resources to residents. But the funds still fall significantly short of what’s needed to address the state’s mental health needs, according to Stephanie Anderson, chief operating officer of Mental Health America of Indiana.

Anderson, who has been among the advocates championing for more attention to the state’s mental health needs, noted that Indiana continues to rank among the last in the nation when it comes to providing adequate mental health services to residents. Currently, Indiana ranks 42nd in the nation when it comes to mental health, according to the State of Mental Health in America 2023 report.

Anderson said the mental health bill is unprecedented in addressing mental health at this level in Indiana, but it has its limitations because of the two-year period of coverage. “For the caucus to consider mental health their No. 1 priority is a huge deal,” she said. “We have mixed emotions about it. I’m glad we’re paying attention to it and glad we passed the bill, but the funds do not support a sustainable program.”

Mental Health America is among the nonprofit organizations targeting gaps in mental health awareness and resources through various educational programs, toolkits, research, and advocacy. One of its most recent initiatives is the Bell Seal for Mental Health certification program, which encourages employers to develop more robust mental health programs in the workplace.

The concept of the Bell Seal certification predates the pandemic, Anderson said.

“The original thought behind it was multifaceted,” she said. “MHA national was really hoping to highlight organizations that are doing right by their employees in terms of mental health and supporting mental health from several different angles.”

The designation also provides a resource or technical assistance for employers that want to do more, said Anderson, who noted that since the program is fairly new, many employers, including those in Indiana, are unaware of the certification.

“We’ve been discussing ways to bring it to Indiana on a bigger level, including adding it as an invaluable resource to Indiana employers,” she said. “This recent session was huge for mental health, and we need to keep that momentum going.”

Insights from Bell Seal recipients

As part of the annual, national Bell Seal certification process, employers seeking to be recognized for creating mentally healthy workplaces undergo a comprehensive 58-criteria application. The process requires teams to evaluate organizational policies and practices that improve employee mental health outcomes, including workplace culture, benefits, compliance, and wellness programs. 

Of the 92 recipients of the 2022 Bell Seal certification, 20 percent represented the nonprofit sector, the second largest group of recipients. Healthcare organizations represented the leading group of recipients at 28 percent.

Some areas that the Bell Seal recipients focused on as part of their efforts to support the mental wellness of their employees included the following:

  • Increased or improved mental health benefits and additional resource support.
  • Provided full coverage of mental health counseling visits, regardless of provider or network
  • Covered in- and out-of-network benefits at the same co-pay or co-insurance rates
  • Implemented $0 co-pay for unlimited mental health therapy sessions
  • Reimbursed 50% of mental health therapy session costs
  • Increased telehealth options
  • Increased number of EAP sessions to 6, 10, or 12 counseling sessions
  • Offered a free virtual 1:1 counseling program
  • Evaluated compensation equity and role structure.
  • Increased compensation transparency and equity
  • Increased minimum wage to reflect the current costs of living
  • Restructured roles to fit employees’ needs
  • Implemented permanent flexible work schedules and enhanced leave policies.
  • Implemented a permanent hybrid work environment
  • Offered paid family leave to care for family members with health conditions
  • Implemented floating and organization-wide “Mental Health Days”
  • Suggested “No Meeting Wednesdays” to focus on other work responsibilities
  • Suggested two-hour blocks on calendars for no meetings
  • Designated a team or individual to identify and address mental health concerns in the workplace.
  • Educated new employees about mental health benefits and support during orientation or onboarding processes.
  • Provided mental health training for supervisors or employees. According to MHA’s 2022 Mind the Workplace report findings, only 46% of companies provide mental health training. 

Employers who are interested in the program can review a pre-assessment tool to determine their preliminary level of recognition before moving forward with the full application. Of the 266 employers that completed the pre-assessment, 42 percent did not meet the qualifications for Bell Seal certification, and 58 percent fell in one of the four recognition levels: bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. 

Anderson noted that many Indiana employers may already have the qualifications to gain Bell Seal certification. “A lot of companies within Indiana are doing great things. They’re just not being highlighted at this point,” she said.

The Bell Seal certification can be effective in attracting and retaining employees in a highly competitive job market, Anderson said.

“The Indiana Chamber of Commerce has made it no secret that employers in general are saying that mental health or substance use disorders are among the leading barriers to a sustainable workforce,” she said. “In the nonprofit world, we struggle even more to compete with for-profit businesses in offering an equitable salary and benefits.” 

Future of mental wellness in Indiana

Anderson said she envisions advocates will continue efforts to restructure the mental health system in Indiana in the coming years. “We know we’re ranked 42nd in the United States, which is not a good number to be in terms of access and quality mental health care,” she said. “We have a system that has been largely untouched since the 1960s when President Kennedy signed into law the establishment of community mental health centers.”

She noted concerns remain because recommendations from the Behavioral Health Commission was for much greater and sustainable funding than what was provided by the $100 million under Senate Bill 1. 

“We’re thankful for the funding that was given and we know there will be supplemented with federal funds,” she said. “However, that doesn’t solve our problems after two years. Advocates will band together to figure out what would be an acceptable sustainable funding source, such as a cell phone surcharge, which is how we fund 911, or alcohol or tobacco taxes because they directly correlate with mental health.

“The ultimate goal is that we get our mental health system restructured so that people are sent to appropriate places for treatment for mental illness or substance use disorder as opposed to jail or the morgue,” Anderson said. “We’ve made some really great strides in this state. We have a long way to go but the momentum is good. I hope we can keep moving forward.”

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