States Address Mental Health Stigma and Employability 

By Sean Slone, Senior Policy Analyst

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on mental health. According to a 2021 survey by the American Psychological Association, psychologists reported significant increases in demand for treatment of anxiety, depression and trauma since 2020. For every person who seeks help however, there may be many more who do not due to concerns about stigma, prejudice and discrimination against people with mental health conditions.  

Attitudes and stigma around mental health were one of the topics addressed in a 2021 study on mental health at work published by the organization Mind Share Partners. According to the study, the nation may be witnessing a subtle shift in those attitudes in the wake of pandemic impacts. Among the findings: 

  • 58% of respondents were willing to hire or work with someone with a mental health condition, up from 46% in 2019. 
  • 55% of respondents believe that an employee with a mental health condition could be just as productive as one without, up from 52% in 2019. 
  • 55% said they knew someone personally with a mental health condition, up from 50% in 2019. 
  • 43% said they knew someone personally at work, up from 32% in 2019. 
  • 41% said they knew someone personally at work who they also considered talented or successful, up from 29% in 2019. 

Moreover, the pandemic’s toll on mental health may be prompting some state policymakers to enact policies designed to reduce and discourage the stigmatization of seeking treatment. For example, Illinois lawmakers have debated a bill (House Bill 4229) that would provide tax incentives to employers who employ individuals in recovery from substance use or mental illness. The legislation would also create an advisory council on mental illness and substance use disorder impacts on employment opportunities within minority communities. The legislative language includes the finding that “in the interest of reducing stigma and increasing the available pool of potential employees, the General Assembly finds and declares that those residents of Illinois diagnosed with mental illness and substance use disorders should be eligible for and encouraged to seek gainful employment.” The legislation goes on to note that minority communities in the state have been more negatively impacted and that employers have suffered negative economic impacts including staffing and recruitment difficulties. 

The mental health challenges faced by a couple of specific populations have been the focus of many de-stigmatization efforts. It has been estimated that 20 to 25 percent of the nation’s homeless population suffers from severe mental illness, compared to 6 percent of the general public. But the number of homeless individuals suffering from “mental health issues” could be far higher. A recent survey found that 63 percent of homeless individuals in Portland, Oregon suffer from mental health issues and say they need more help. Another group—the recently incarcerated—can face numerous psychological challenges upon their release, including discrimination, isolation and instability, which can lead to devastating outcomes including homelessness, substance misuse and suicide. The housing needs of those experiencing homelessness and the employability of recently incarcerated individuals are the focus of legislation under consideration in several states. Among them: 

  • California, where Senate Bill 903 (still pending as of June 14) would require the California Rehabilitation Oversight Board to regularly examine the mental health, substance abuse, educational and employment programs for incarcerated persons and parolees operated by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, as well as the department’s efforts to assist incarcerated persons and parolees to obtain post-release health care coverage and housing. The board would be required to report annually to the Governor and the Legislature about the data indicating the number of parolees who are experiencing homelessness and those previously identified as having serious mental health needs. 
  • Tennessee, where lawmakers during the 2022 session considered but did not give final passage to Senate Bill 2867, which would have directed the Tennessee advisory commission on intergovernmental relations to perform a study of current programs in the state related to services provided to homeless persons for shelter, mental health and safety, and to prepare a report comparing those programs and designating those programs with the highest success rate of helping individuals find employment and permanent shelter.  
  • Washington, where Senate Bill 5304, passed in 2021, seeks to provide strategies to prevent the interruption of medical assistance benefits and allow a seamless transfer between systems of care for those released from state and local institutions. According to the legislative language, the legislature found that “the success of persons with behavioral health needs being released from confinement in a prison, jail, juvenile rehabilitation facility, state hospital, and other state and local institutions can be increased with access to continuity of medical assistance, supportive services, and other targeted assistance.”   

In commemoration of Mental Health Awareness Month in May, CSG, CSG East and the State Exchange on Employment & Disability (SEED) hosted a webinar focused on mental health and the workplace. The webinar explored how state policymakers have an opportunity to support both employers and employees, to advance access to mental health services and supports, to address workforce shortages and to help shape the modern workplace to better meet the needs of the American worker. Also highlighted was the recently released SEED report “Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Workers Throughout and Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic,” along with findings about the state of employer health benefits, workplace culture, communities of color and the expansion of workplace mental health supports. You can access the webinar recording here