The problems with the rollout of Obamacare have dominated coverage of the president’s health care plan, which includes coverage of mental health disorders. Lost in the chaos and criticism is the importance of dealing with major depression and other serious mental health disorders, especially as it relates to two demographic groups that are pillars of society in different ways – the young and the old.
Mental illness not only derails overall personal wellness but interferes with healthy, active and productive living. Recent tragic events such at the school shooting in Newtown last December – when 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally killed 20 innocent children and six adults before turning a gun on himself – underscore the huge burdens on society that could be avoided with more serious attention paid to the challenges of mental illness among America’s youth.
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Equally challenging, though, is the need for more serious consideration of the mental health of older Americans, the failure of which has far-reaching consequences beyond the social and moral obligations underscored by Newtown. With decades of life experience and wisdom under their belts, older Americans can and need to be able to continue contributing to social prosperity and economic growth.
Global organizations recognize the connections between healthy aging and economic growth. The most influential groups – from the United Nations and the World Health Organization to APEC and the OECD – have acknowledged the economic impact of not adequately addressing non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension and Alzheimer’s. This is monumental; but overlooking mental illness, including depression, is regrettable.
Depression is often viewed as on the periphery of essential health services, but it is, in fact, at the core of healthy and active aging. Research shows that the health consequences of depression reach far beyond the stereotypes of “being sad.”
In older populations, depression stalls rates of recovery from other diseases, creating a barrier against engaging in other healthy behaviors. Depression is, so to speak, a double-edged sword.
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Given the brutal fiscal and political environment surrounding the U.S.’s health care system, however – and the sweep of austerity buckling nations across the globe – it’s reasonable to wonder how governments can develop better, more comprehensive treatment for mental illness.
As such, the private sector has a real chance to lead and make a difference.
Based on what we know about depression, mental illness and the potential economic vitality of a healthy and active aging population, there is one solution that can move the needle: the age-friendly workplace. If workplaces can be designed to promote mental wellness, the improvement of overall health will follow. It is an opportunity for the private sector to make high-impact changes that will promote healthy aging without requiring access to well-guarded federal coffers.
Broadly speaking, there are two ways employers can create age-friendly workplaces:
An ergonomically friendly environment helps all employees during their working lives. For good reason: Adapting workspaces to fit the human body has become “step one,” but it’s only part of the equation.
Workplaces must also promote physical activity. Even modest increases in exercise have disproportionately positive effects on mental health and resonate throughout the body, increasing overall well being.
Organizations can offer programs that promote workers’ knowledge base. Ongoing education, training and financial planning all encourage advancement and motivation.
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The ideal age-friendly workplace also offers flexibility. Many workers are caring for loved ones who suffer from chronic disease. Caregivers need the flexibility to manage doctors’ visits, run household errands and manage medical issues. It is unfortunate that many employees face the ultimatum of either working or caregiving.
There is immense opportunity to bring attention to mental wellness, especially among older Americans. National governments cannot drive this progress alone. This time next year, wouldn’t it be nice to reflect on how the age-friendly workplace has improved mental health – and overall wellness – among the world’s fastest growing demographic segment? In doing so, there would also be a greater awareness of how we think about the mental wellness of all Americans.