We're in the midst of a wave of awareness when it comes to mental health. Sadly, these conversations often come on the heels of a celebrity suicide or local tragedy that has profoundly affected our community. Nonetheless, the fact that we're engaging in the conversation and pushing ourselves to sit with difficult emotions highlights our shared humanity. Mental health is human health, and it's good for us to see it as such.
As the leader of a nonprofit organization that serves our neighbors confronting addiction and homelessness, I see my employees confronted every day with sad, difficult and often distressing situations. It is not uncommon for us to get a call about an overdose case, a child removed from the home, or the unexpected death of a former participant. Addiction recovery is complex, and the results often are not what we'd hoped.
People who work at nonprofit organizations are drawn to taking care of others, but we're often not very good at taking care of ourselves. In fact, even with good self-care, there are still hazards to our health in this line of work. This becomes particularly true with mental health, where crises are often invisible to those around us, even those who know us best.
As I have reflected on what May's National Mental Health Awareness Month means for me personally and professionally, I have come to two conclusions.
We must invest in our staff. Yes, we invest in them financially, but we need to see our staff holistically. Before my tenure, there was an attitude of isolation within our organization. Professional development was reserved for a few at the top of the organization. Our team was exhausted, burned out and disengaged. To address this, we have made professional development and staff training a priority for all employees. And in the past year, we have started to think about additional ways to support and nurture our team.
What does that look like for us? We have partnered with an employee assistance program to offer free counseling sessions to staff, and to their family members, whenever they need support. We have esatablished regular mental health check-ins for our peer support specialists and their managers, and we're also in the process of connecting front-line staff with external supervisors who can help them, encourage them and be a listening ear for them. Our employees are the backbone of our long-term recovery program, and that also means that they see, hear and experience a lot of traumatic things on a near daily basis.
We also ask our managers to review the Professional Quality of Life Survey with their staff every quarter. The survey takes a closer look at factors such as job satisfaction, burnout and exposure to secondary trauma. As we seek to build health and wellness into our organizational culture, we want to build this into our program as a regular health and wellness check for our staff.
Two-thirds of our staff are former participants in our recovery program. Engaging with people actively in addiction can be triggering for those in recovery. We've seen staff experience depression, anxiety and burnout, but we've also seen them flourish and thrive, finding great meaning in their work. If we want to continue to see them succeed, we must attend to their emotional, mental and spiritual well-being.
We've brought in grief counselors to help our staff when we experience a loss in our “family.” We are a very close-knit community, and losses like that affect us all. Grief counseling has been a helpful way to open up lines of communication and create a safe space for professionals to feel comfortable talking about their emotional health in the workplace.
We formed an organizational wellness committee with representatives from every team in our organization, regardless of position or pay scale. We meet every month to talk about issues within the organization. We also use it as a training ground to develop professional leadership skills in our staff.
We also have created health and wellness outlets for our participants and staff, including the F3 fitness program on the men's campus, the Oak City Recovery Run Club (started by a staff member and former participant), yoga classes at our women's campus, and community mentors who meet with participants to help them with life and job skills training.
We must invest in ourselves. I'll be the first to admit I've been a bad role model when it comes to mental health and wellness. In fact, a few years ago, I realized I had unconsciously created an expectation for staff about our work culture: If they saw my car in the parking lot in the evening or on the weekend, they thought they should still be working too. I've been trying to change that over the past few years. This unhealthy relationship with work, and its effect on my own mental health, has led me to strive to become a member of what a friend once told me is called the “get a life club.”
Organizations that prioritize the “get a life” philosophy want their employees to have a life outside of their work—spending time with their family, enjoying a hobby, or even simply resting. I love this concept, and we're working to better incorporate this into the values of our organization to make sure that mental health and wellness becomes a foundation of Healing Transitions' everyday ethos.
As for me? I'm still working on being a role model for my team, and I'm starting by making fitness classes a priority at the end of my workday. Taking small steps every day can help us slowly shift the conversation around mental health together.
Chris Budnick. MSW. LCSW, is Executive Director of Raleigh, N.C.-based Healing Transitions and has been working in the addiction treatment and recovery field since 1993. He was an intern with Healing Transitions International, Inc. from 1999 to 2000 and has been employed with the organization since 2000. He is the founding board chair for Recovery Communities of North Carolina, Inc., a recovery community organization.