By: Kathy Bergstrom
If families and caregivers are included, mental health problems and illnesses affect almost everyone in some way. According to the Mental Health Commission Canada, Making the Case for Investing in Mental Health in Canada, more than 20% of the Canadian working-age population was living with a mental health problem in 2011.
Yet people dealing with mental health issues often feel isolated and hide their problems, failing to realize that they’re not alone. One Canadian company has worked to end that by implementing a peer support program for employees dealing with mental health issues.
NAV CANADA, Canada’s civil air navigation services provider, began a peer support network called Light the Way in 2012. Through the program, 50 employees have been trained as peer supporters. They make themselves known to co-workers through the company’s intranet and external wellness program website and agree to provide support for those who contact them.
In a little more than two years, at least 200 employees have reached out for support on issues such as Asperger’s Syndrome, depression, anxiety and postpartum depression. Employees either are experiencing the problems themselves or are seeking help because loved ones are battling mental health issues.
The length and depth of the relationship varies. Participants might talk only once with a supporter or they might touch base for a few minutes every day. Communication occurs by telephone, text messages or in person at worksites.
The peer supporters don’t direct participants to seek counselling but make sure they know how to access resources, whether it’s NAV CANADA’s employee assistance program (EAP) or other medical resources.
It’s difficult to clearly measure success, but EAP usage has increased significantly in the last two years, and the company also has seen a significant decrease in mental health-related long- and short-term disability cases.
One of the biggest benefits is the reassurance the program provides that employees are not alone, say peer supporters Monty Cook and Kristina Walsh.
Cook fought depression and anxiety following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and said he would have been helped by the program had it been in place then. “The single biggest thing it could have done for me would be to have somebody that I could relate to, who could just provide a little bit of hope,” he said.
“I think it’s just being able to recognize what they’re going through on the same level,” said Walsh, an air traffic controller in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. Walsh struggled to deal with the suicide of a close friend 13 years ago and now realizes many people are touched by suicide. Even though others are sympathetic, “until you’ve actually been in those exact same shoes, you don’t quite fully understand what it feels like,” she said.
When considering options for mental health support, don’t ignore the resources you have right inside your workplace—your employees. A peer support program can be a surprisingly effective way to provide struggling employees with the support they need.