United Retailers Association, Hospital Panamericano to educate employers about high incidence of mental health problems in Puerto Rico
SAN JUAN – The United Retailers Association of Puerto Rico (CUD by its Spanish initials) and First Hospital Panamericano have joined efforts for the first time to educate employers about the high incidence of mental health problems on the island and the alternatives available to help workers to increase productivity.
Puerto Rico is the third jurisdiction in the United States, after Mississippi and Kentucky, with the highest level of mental health problems, CUD President Jorge Arguelles Moran and Panamericano Health System CEO Astro Muñoz Aponte said.
On Friday, the first Mental Health Congress of Puerto Rico will be held, at the San Juan Marriott Resort, to raise awareness and educate business and mental health professionals about the issues.
Some of the topics to be discussed include the aging population; the impact of mental health conditions; the emotional connection in the prevention of addictive behaviors; the integration of mental health services in Vital, the government’s health program; the challenges posed by Alzheimer’s; autism and new techniques for its management; and the reality of medicinal cannabis as an alternative to treat mental health conditions.
Asked about the impact that the high incidence of mental health problems have on the business sector, Arguelles replied that, “like any other disease,” mental health “upsets the productivity of the company. The [affected] employee has to be absent from the job or cannot be as productive as expected. In addition, the company can be put at risk for incidents of violence.”
Muñoz Aponte mentioned that there is a high percentage of people with mental health problems who do not receive services or a definite diagnosis.
“We know there is a high incidence, but four out of 10 do not receive the services they need for multiple reasons. One of them is probably due to the stigma of seeking mental health services. There may be employees of multiple types who do not go to receive services because they think they will be targeted if they are diagnosed a mental health problem,” the executive said.
Part of the message the congress wants to deliver to the public is the relationship between mental health and physical conditions.
“A diabetic has a high probability of suffering from depression, and having the two conditions interacting can aggravate the condition. We can help those people to seek help before they become an acute patient,” Arguelles said.
The mental health problem in Puerto Rico was exacerbated by Hurricane Maria and is reflected in the high number of suicides. Arguelles said that, so far this year, there have been 36 suicides, or 20 more than for the same period last year.
Awilda Broco, chief executive officer of First Healthcare, said people are unaware of indicators in their daily behavior that can help them determine if they have a mental health problem.
“When they realize it, they need more acute services. It’s like when you stop going to the dentist or you do not pay attention to high blood pressure. It is a matter of understanding and seeking help on time,” she stressed.
Arguelles wants the public to see a mental health patient as they would a person who has any other physical disease.
“Because the condition is sometimes manifested by emotions, people tend to believe that the patient is just being too emotional. Then the family tells them that they have to overcome the problem or make an effort to get well,” he said of typical cases.
Broco also spoke of laws that require coverage for mental health conditions be the same as for physical problems, so patients can have access to psychologists, social workers and counseling.
Are there enough mental health providers?
Muñoz Aponte said that at the ambulatory level, there has been a mass exodus of psychiatrists but not in psychiatric hospitals, where the number of mental health professionals has remained stable.
Asked how the private sector can raise awareness or help employees deal with a mental health condition, Arguelles said the congress wants to educate businesspeople so they can identify mental health conditions.
“No employer wants to have a sick work force, but we have to deal with the physical as well as the mental part, especially when it is a physical condition that aggravates a mental condition. The reality that we are bringing to the table is that there is a high probability of physical and mental conditions that go hand in hand that put employees in a situation where they are unable to lead a normal life,” Arguelles said.
Asked for suggestions that help businesses manage mental health matters for their workers, Broco said employers should be proactive and have tools at hand such as seeking counselors and implementing coaching programs to help employees.