Mental health and wellness aren’t the same

This is wellness, not mental health.
This is wellness, not mental health.
Image: REUTERS/Chris Wattie
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Mainstream companies from Nike to Deutsche Bank offer corporate meditation workshops and empathy trainings. Google has on-site yoga classes, regular meditation programming, and green juice on-the-go. There are myriad HR consulting companies that specialize in the implementation of corporate wellness programming. “Corporate wellness” is a buzz word comprising an industry unto itself.

As the CEO and co-Founder of an online therapy company, I’ve come across my fair share of wellness initiatives. And in the process, I’ve noticed how many HR departments, publications, and conferences explicitly equate mental health and wellness, as if the two are one and the same.

For example, the HR departments at influential American universities like Northwestern, Duke, University of Michigan, and Vanderbilt all offer programming and services under the term “Mental Health and Wellness.” The National Alliance on Mental Illness held a conference last May entitled “Mental Health and Wellness Conference: Working Together to Build a Better World.”

Bundling wellness together with mental health in the context of employee well-being is pernicious, more so than it may sound. One term encompasses a slew of wonderful lifestyle perks, while the latter is a crucial and critical healthcare service. By conflating them, we imply that mental health is not as serious as other health problems. The reality is that mental health is not getting a massage or eating salads for lunch; for many, it’s a matter of life or death. Mental health is not an indulgence.

Equating mental health and overall wellness keeps mental health on the sidelines. It presents mental health as a choice you can opt into, rather than a universal concern with real consequences. Without proper emphasis placed on the importance of mental health, people will continue avoiding proper treatment and accessing professional care.

While we all agree that total health needs a patient-centric, holistic, and integrative approach, it’s important to remember a few facts.

Mental illness is one of the biggest and most detrimental global health crises we’ve seen in generations. Mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and more have long been dismissed with pejorative terms like “hysteria” and “craziness.” But mental illness comprises a long list of painful and sometimes deadly conditions that need to be treated with as much care and attention as physical disease.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and a major contributor to the widespread proliferation of disease across the globe — from heart disease to chronic pain to high blood pressure. In the US, 1 in 5 adults are said to experience a mental health issue in a given year. And it is estimated that businesses lose more than $190 billion annually in productivity due to employee mental health issues that are left untreated.

Even in 2017, those with mental illnesses still have to navigate stigma, a lack of information, and a broken healthcare system, all of which leads to little or no improvement in the efficacy and scale of care provided in the U.S. But before any systemic changes can take effect to help destigmatize mental health and expand access to affordable, proper care, we need to re-prioritize mental health—wholeheartedly, across the board, as a society, in and out of the workplace.

Mental health is infinitely more important than wellness, and it should take priority as much as any other potentially fatal issue.

Undoubtedly, our current healthcare system is broken. As we push for systemic reform affecting all health care issues, we must make sure to emphasize action on mental health and hold every and any public servant who is not advancing this cause to account. I’d like to see mental health as the number one topic in any healthcare conference, discussion, legislation or debate. And no, not next to “wellness.”

Oren Frank is a co-founder and the CEO of Talkspace.