Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Mental Health Benefits in New Jersey State and Local Government

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Mental Health Benefits in New Jersey State and Local Government

Article excerpt

Adequate mental health coverage is a key element of a comprehensive employee benefits package. The absence of adequate mental health coverage imposes significant costs on employees, their families, and our society as a whole and is a larger public health and safety issue. The focus of this study is to analyze mental health policies and coverage levels for New Jersey State government employees and a sample of New Jersey local governments.

New Jersey State and local governments employed 493,910 workers in 1997, 13.7 percent of the labor force. (1) When the families of employees are included, the impact of mental health coverage extends to a larger segment of the population. In addition, given the important public health and safety implications, state and local governments should take a leadership role in providing full mental health coverage parity. Mental health benefits are a major component of the traditional category of benefits (health, pension, life insurance, dental, and prescription) that are a major competitive asset in the recruitment and retention of governmental employees. New Jersey local governments are extremely competitive with private employers in the provision of the core benefits and all full-time state and most local government employees receive mental health coverage. (2) Even though a majority of New Jersey state and local governments offer mental health benefits, the absence of parity reduces the value and effectiveness of mental health services.

The Prevalence and Consequences of Mental Illness

Mental illness affects all segments of our population thereby making it one of the nation's most serious public health problems. The prevalence and consequences of mental illness are summarized below: (3)

1. Widespread Prevalence of Mental Illness: Fifty percent of the U.S. population manifests at least one episode of mental illness during his/her life time with a 12-month prevalence rate of between 20 and 30 percent. (4)

2. High Aggregate Dollar Cost of Depression: Untreated depression costs $43 billion yearly with 12 billion in unscheduled absenteeism alone, approximately $3,000 yearly per treated employee, $6,000 per untreated worker. (5)

3. Mental Health Problems Are Risk Factors for Drug and Alcohol Abuse: Mental illness is a documented risk factor for drug and alcohol abuse with associated high treatment costs. (6)

4. Low Rates of Treatment for Mental Illness: Studies of the general population indicate that one in three employees afflicted with mental illness seeks medical (21%) or psychiatric (12%) assistance. (7)

A major challenge for public management is to increase the percentage of employees who seek treatment for mental illness. The factors that deter employees from seeking treatment include self, social, and supervisory stigmas attached to mental illness that result in an inability or unwillingness to recognize and acknowledge problems. (8) Employees are appropriately concerned that seeking treatment for mental problems may adversely influence supervisory or co-worker confidence that results in diminished evaluations of present job performance and opportunities for advancement.

Statutory and legal case law enhances the importance of appropriate mental health management programs. The ADA covers mental disabilities and requires reasonable accommodation for eligible employees. There is considerable ambiguity in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, which increases the difficulty for employers in selecting the appropriate accommodation. The almost infinite range, severity, and gradations of mental illness engender considerable disagreement, which leads to high levels of litigation. (9) Proper identification and treatment of mental illness can attenuate its progression and severity, thereby obviating the need for expensive accommodations and associated litigation.

Another potential consequence of untreated mental illness is employee actions that adversely affect the health and safety of fellow employees, clients, or the general public. …

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