February 15, 2024 / Steven Lacey

Mental Health: Ending the Stigma

Image Credit: Getty / BeritK

The evidence is overwhelming: so many Americans are struggling with their mental health. In 2021, CDC reported that the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of anxiety or depression increased from 36.4 percent to 41.5 percent between August 2020 and February 2021. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), two-thirds of adults say they experienced increased stress over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. And just two months ago, another CDC report found that the suicide rate in 2021 was more than 30 percent higher than it was 20 years ago. The conclusion reached by APA is that "we are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come."

If these reports are alarming, so too is the realization that many people are too ashamed of their mental health or fearful of the consequences of disclosing personal information to seek the help they need. That is why, in April 2022, the Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI) at the University of Utah launched a "grand challenge" to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health and substance use disorder. From my perspective, eliminating stigma begins with the simple idea that it has to be okay to talk about these things.

HMHI was founded in 2019 by a generous gift from the Huntsman Foundation, a leading charity that also supports cancer research, public education, and women, children, and the unhoused. Its grand challenge has brought together a long list of partner organizations, including APA, the National Association of Social Workers, the Society for Human Resource Management, and many others. I was honored to represent AIHA at the Anti-Stigma Grand Challenge Design Summit that convened these association leaders in 2022. My goal in attending was to highlight the linkages between work and mental health that make the workplace an important point of intervention.

The goal of eliminating stigma is consistent with the tenets of the NIOSH Total Worker Health initiative. OEHS professionals are well positioned to help achieve HMHI's vision of a world where mental health and substance use issues are treated just like other health outcomes, with an emphasis on prevention. They can't be prevented if stigma keeps people from acknowledging them.

The goal of the HMHI initiative is to fully support everyone with mental health and substance use disorders. To achieve this goal, HMHI seeks to create a social movement that changes public perceptions. The ongoing tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid epidemic have brought mental health and substance use disorders to the forefront of public consciousness and, of course, into the workplace. Now is the time to channel that awareness into action. To learn more, visit Stop Stigma Together.


American Psychological Association: "Stress in America 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis" (October 2020).

CDC: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, "Suicide Rates by Industry and Occupation—National Vital Statistics System, United States, 2021" (December 2023).

CDC: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, "Symptoms of Anxiety or Depressive Disorder and Use of Mental Health Care Among Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic—United States, August 2020–February 2021" (April 2021).

Steven Lacey

Steven E. Lacey, PhD, CIH, CSP, FAIHA, is a professor of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Utah School of Medicine and a Fellow and past president of AIHA.


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