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COMMENTARY: Holiday season highlights mental health issues

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While carolers may chant joyfully about the holidays being “the most wonderful time of the year,” many U.S. workers find themselves singing the blues during the winter months.

One in 10 people will experience depression at some time in their lives, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, costing employers $44 billion annually in lost productivity. Depression also is the fifth-most common cause of disability claims after cancer, pregnancy complications, back and cardiovascular issues.

Unfortunately, because of the shame and stigma still associated with a diagnosis of depression, the first stop for 80% of people struggling with this condition is rarely a mental health professional; rather, they go to a primary care physician, according to the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health. Even if that doctor is astute enough to identify the root cause of that patient's ailments and prescribes antidepressants, four out of 10 people stop taking them before they have any measurable effect.

“When you think about the symptoms — aches and pains, sleep problems, difficulty concentrating — people go to where they feel most comfortable to seek help: their primary care physicians,” said Clare Miller, director of the Arlington, Va.-based Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, a program of the American Psychiatric Foundation.

The organization's research also found that people who are depressed but not treated consume two to four times the health care resources as those who are properly treated.

Depression also is a chronic condition, with 50% of those who are initially diagnosed likely to have a recurrence, and many of those subsequent episodes of depression can be more intense, leading to disability, Ms. Miller said.

But employers can address this problem head-on — and at no cost to them.

The partnership has developed an educational program, Right Direction, in collaboration with Employers Health Coalition Inc., a national employer coalition based in Ohio, that is available free to employers.

Unveiled at the National Business Coalition on Health's annual meeting last month in Scottsdale, Ariz., the program was designed as a step-by-step “field guide” for employers that includes customizable promotional posters, PowerPoint presentation decks for managers and employees, and content for corporate intranet sites.

Employers also can direct their employees to additional resources on the consumer web site www.RightDirectionforMe.com, where they can find information about the signs and symptoms of depression, a downloadable depression screening tool to complete and bring to their doctor, a form allowing anyone to anonymously recommend Right Direction to their employer, and other resources and tips to get help.

The good news is that treatment does work, said Ms. Miller.