It’s time for companies to start talking about mental health

A woman struggles under her umbrella on her way to work in gale force winds and rain in East London October 30, 2000. The worst…
A woman struggles under her umbrella on her way to work in gale force winds and rain in East London October 30, 2000. The worst…
Image: REUTERS//Russell Boyce
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

On New Year’s Day, 2014, I got the worst phone call of my life. I knew my daughter Katharine, who was a few years out of college, had been on a first date the night before, and I was curious to see how it went.  But when I got a call from her number, I was startled to hear a man’s voice on the phone.

“Are you Katharine’s father?”

Fearing the worst, I managed a reply: “Yes…yes I am.”

“This is the Boston Police Department. Your daughter tried to kill herself. We are taking her to the hospital. You need to get here right away.”

Katharine had suffered from an eating disorder for 10 years, and our family was used to playing an emotionally supportive role in her life. Through her illness, though, we got a first-hand look at how broken the mental health system, and how it sets up patients and families to suffer. We learned that mental health primary care and specialty care for things like eating disorders are not integrated, and that insurance often fails to cover a patient’s most basic needs. As a result, the burden placed on loved ones can be staggering, and often prevents patients from seeking the help they desperately need. And it’s not just the United States: As the former vice president of international government affairs for Johnson & Johnson, I’ve met with officials around the world, and the problem is the same everywhere.

When I watched my daughter suffer and learned about all the challenges that patients and their families face, I knew that change was needed, and that I had to be part of it. Johnson & Johnson’s Neuroscience leader, Husseini Manji, took me under his wing, and together we took the case for change to Johnson & Johnson leadership. We explained that no one in the healthcare system today, not families, the medical profession, or law enforcement, has the resources to tackle the mental health crisis alone. Organizations of all types need to work together to be part of the solution, and companies need to do more to adapt to employees with mental health conditions.

Not only do they have a moral obligation to provide for their employees who are struggling, but they have a financial one, as well. When you fail to create a supportive workplace, you not only lose out on today’s top talent, you miss out on the leaders of tomorrow, as well.

To my relief, leadership understood the importance of this problem, and the work needed to solve it. It was only then that I realized the true scope of what I was tackling. I could no longer work on mental health advocacy part-time. As a result, I’m now the company’s first ever ambassador for mental health.

Companies need to discuss mental health. That means people from the senior executive level talking about their own mental health conditions, and encouraging employees throughout the organization to do the same.  It means integrating mental health into every aspect of employee health benefits, from supervisor training, to office health clinics, to childcare centers. And it means implementing mental health first aid training for all people-managers, so that they can recognize symptoms and respond with care and understanding, not judgement.

I’m proud to say that the Mental Health Diplomats, the employee resource group (ERG) that we established last year for team members with mental health conditions, has become the fastest growing ERG in Johnson & Johnson’s history, with more than 800 members in 32 countries. We’ve also partnered with organizations and governments around the world who are just as committed to this fight as we are.

We have a lot of work to do. One in four of us live with a diagnosable mental health condition, and many more of us are caregivers. The most insidious part, though, is that it hits the young hardest of all. Half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14, as my daughter’s did, and another 25% begin by age 24. Two-thirds of sufferers don’t get treatment, and those who do often wait an average of 8-10 years to do so. This is why healthcare professionals refer to mental illness as the “chronic disease of the young.” In fact, for the first time in recorded human history, the leading cause of death for teenage girls worldwide is no longer childbirth—it’s suicide.

This past New Year’s Day, the fifth anniversary of that phone call, I hugged my daughter tighter than ever. She’s thriving now, and is working toward a degree in social work at the University of Michigan. It’s now our life’s work to help others living with mental illness, either as patients or as caregivers, stand up and demand a better world, where these issues are openly discussed, recognized, and effectively treated.