What Mental Health Is and Why It Can’t Be Ignored

Most of us have heard – probably more than a few times – that if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.  There’s no denying the truth of that but increasingly, and all the more during the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s an understanding that mental health is just as important and impactful as physical health.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines positive mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community” (WHO, 2001, p. 1).  Clearly, we all strive for this – or at least should be – but not all of us are mentally well, all of the time.  Indeed, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) reports[1] that:

  • Mental illness indirectly affects all Canadians at some time through a family member, friend or colleague.
  • In any given year, 1 in 5 people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness.
  • Mental illness affects people of all ages, education, income levels, and cultures.
  • Approximately 8% of adults will experience major depression at some time in their lives.
  • About 1% of Canadians will experience bipolar disorder (or “manic depression”).

What’s more, though final numbers aren’t yet available, Fardous Hosseiny, the National Director of Research and Policy at the CMHA predicted that by 2020, depression would be the leading cause of disability in Canada (preliminary indications are that Mr. Hosseiny was correct).  Even more staggering is that approximately 1.6 million people continue to have their mental illness needs unmet.  As Mr. Hosseiny explains, “Mental illnesses are episodic, but the key is that if it’s untreated, that’s when it’s really disruptive. We know that untreated mental illnesses are only exasperated with time.”  Given the number of people not being helped, Mr. Hosseiny suspects that the number of Canadians who suffer from mental illness each year is even higher than what research shows (1 in 4 Canadians as opposed to 1 in 5), and that the availability of support systems – or lack thereof – plays a major role.[2]  Clearly, something needs to be done.

 Your Group Benefits Plan Can Be a Terrific Support to Your Employees and Their Mental Health.  Here’s How.

My team and I have been promoting the importance of mental health and mental health supports in group benefit plans for many years – long before the stigma surrounding mental illness started to decay.  One of the most effective tools available is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which can be added to a traditional group benefits plan.  Though the number of EAP providers is higher than ever, and the number of options available is ever increasing, most EAPs provide, at minimum, confidential short-term counselling to employees and their spouses and dependent children, as well as referrals and other forms of support designed to help bolster mental health.

Other options include a robust Health benefits plan that provides coverage for mostly physical concerns, knowing that when an individual cannot afford to pay for a Health product or service, his or her mental health can be severely impacted as a result.  The same idea is behind Wellness and Health Spending Accounts.  Providing your employees with healthcare dollars to spend as they need or choose to do helps reduce or even eliminate the financial concern that might otherwise present a barrier to their getting the help and support they need.

The Business Case for Mental Health Supports in Benefits

Aside from the obvious compassionate reasons for providing mental health supports at and through work, there’s a strong business case for it too.  The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) estimates that the total cost to Canada’s economy incurred by mental health problems and illnesses is well over $50 billion annually, or nearly $1,400 for every person living in Canada in 2016.  This includes significant employer costs due to absenteeism, presenteeism, and employee turnover.[3]  And it makes sense.  Healthier, happier employees tend to be more productive than their less healthy, less happy colleagues so investing in your employees’ mental health helps you – and your business – too.

It’s a wonderful thing that awareness and acceptance of the need to protect and care for mental health is finally on an upswing, and the fact that employers can do so much for their employees’ mental health carries exponential benefit for everyone involved, including the employers themselves (given the positive impact on their businesses).  As cliché as it might sound, benefits really are an investment in your team, and there’s never been a greater need than now for the mental health supports they provide.

Debra L. Wiegers, GBA, CFP, CLU., Ch.F.C.

Benefits Consultant, Wiegers Financial and Insurance Planning Services Ltd.


[1] Canadian Mental Health Association, “Fast Facts About Mental Illness”, https://cmha.ca/fast-facts-about-mental-illness

[2] Ashley Kowalewski-Pizzi, Canadian Living, “Mental Health Issues in Canada Are More Common Than You Think”, https://www.canadianliving.com/health/mind-and-spirit/article/mental-health-issues-in-canada-are-more-common-than-you-think

[3] Mental Health Commission of Canada, “Strengthening the Case for Investing in Canada’s Mental Health System: Economic Considerations, March 2017, https://www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/sites/default/files/2017-03/case_for_investment_eng.pdf