Behavioral health: increase access and reduce stigma

Behavioral health conditions affect an estimated one in five American adults each year.1 Of the individuals struggling with a mental health condition, 60% of them didn’t receive mental health services in the previous year.2

An Optum® study, “Ten Years of Health and Well-being at Work,” surveyed 500 U.S.-based employers on various topics related to workplace well-being. One of the topics was behavioral health.

We learned that the behavioral health landscape continues to change. A number of factors contributed to this in the last 10 years, including:

  • Increased opioid and alcohol use
  • Increased violence rates
  • Increased financial stress due to economic burden
  • Employee burnout due to working long hours and/or working multiple jobs

Employers are focused on helping their employees address their behavioral health-related concerns. Two ways they can help are by increasing access to services and reducing the associated stigma.

Increasing access to behavioral health solutions

The Optum study found that 87% of employers are concerned about access to behavioral health services.3 While most companies already offer these services, a couple of factors contribute to the lack of access:

  • Members who are seeking behavioral health services have trouble finding the right provider in a timely manner.
  • Fewer mental health professionals are available in-network because it makes more sense for them to have patients pay out-of-pocket fees.

To help improve access to behavioral health support, employers offer two solutions: the employee assistance program (EAP) and the behavioral health program.

EAP is available to all employees and their family members and covers mental health and substance use. It covers multiple topics, including learning how to talk to teens about personal issues and how to get through the loss of a family pet.

The behavioral health program is also available to employees and their families. This program focuses solely on mental health and substance use services.

Reducing behavioral health stigma

While we continue to see improvements in behavioral health access, many people avoid seeking help due to the associated stigma. According to the Optum study, 88% of employers have plans to address mental health stigma at their companies within a year.4

Anti-stigma campaigns are becoming the norm at many companies. These campaigns primarily focus on making it okay to talk about behavioral health conditions and to not feel ashamed to ask for help. Employers achieve this through a number of approaches:

  • Rebranding services to feel inclusive and easier to understand
  • Opening up the conversation through communication campaigns and company-sponsored events
  • Training managers to take the appropriate steps to help employees who are struggling with a behavioral health condition
  • Taking a well-being approach to their company culture by focusing on things like mindfulness, positivity, financial struggles and sleep

Employers are finding success with these campaigns through the use of behavioral health services; however, measuring success can be challenging. Some of the observational ways these campaigns find success include:

  • Feedback from managers after trainings
  • Postings on the organization’s website
  • Anecdotes from employees and managers regarding people being more open to mentioning mental health and life event issues
  • Comprehensive views of claims noting people on behavioral health medications seeking help beyond a primary care provider

Reaching the tipping point of mental health awareness

Despite the efforts made by companies to support their employees, we haven’t yet reached the tipping point for acknowledging mental health awareness.

The tipping point will come when people are as comfortable talking about mental health issues as they are about cancer or heart disease.

Download the “Ten Years of Health and Well-being at Work” e-book to learn more about the main topics impacting employers and employees, including behavioral health, women’s health and complex, costly conditions.



About the author

SerxnerSeth - Full shotSeth Serxner, PhD, MPH
Chief Health Officer, Optum

Seth Serxner, a national expert on behavior change, program design and measurement, brings the breadth of his experience in academia, industry and consulting to his role as chief health officer at Optum.

His versatile skill set ensures processes and outcomes that improve health for clients in all markets. His deep knowledge of behavior change, population health and measurement allows him to visualize and deliver on program innovation.

He is a published author with over 25 years of experience in health and productivity management. He holds a master’s in public health and a doctorate from the University of California, where his research focused on health promotion and disease prevention in social ecology.


1 Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. 2018.
2 Park-Lee E, Lipari RN, Hedden SL, et al. Receipt of services for substance use and mental health issues among adults: results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. NSDUH Data Review. Sep. 2017. Accessed Nov. Aug 29, 2019.
3 Optum. “Ten Years of Health and Well-Being at Work” e-book. 2019.
4 Ibid.

One thought on “Behavioral health: increase access and reduce stigma

  1. This is really a nice article. While searching for health care I have came across this article which gave me additional value. Consumption of alcohol is increasing at a great rate which is big factor in this case.

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