Responding to Colorado’s Mental Health and Substance Use Epidemic

The Center for Health, Work & Environment launches new initiative to help employers become recovery-friendly

The Center for Health, Work & Environment (CHWE) at the Colorado School of Public Health (ColoradoSPH) is responding to the national mental health crisis and substance use epidemic that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This emergency requires a strong joint effort between public health organizations and employers.

To answer the staggering increase in substance use, mental health needs, and substance-related deaths in the American workforce, CHWE has received federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to develop and launch the Recovery Friendly Workplace Initiative. The project works with partners and employers to educate businesses, guiding them in creating workplaces that support workers struggling with common behavioral health conditions including substance use and addiction.

“There is concern about the impact the pandemic has played in the rise of poor mental health and substance use disorders,” said Lili Tenney, DrPH, MPH, assistant professor at the ColoradoSPH, associate director for outreach and programs at CHWE and project lead. “We know that for workers who were already high risk for mental and behavioral health struggles, isolation has only worsened that struggle and perpetuated substance use. We have seen health risks increase including sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and others.”

CHWE rejoins its long-standing partner, the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, to assist Colorado employers in addressing these behavioral health issues. The project will focus on reaching employers in high-risk industries including construction and agriculture and across urban and rural areas of Colorado.

The state legislature is appropriating $450 million from ARPA to enhance Colorado’s behavioral health system, which will increase access to treatment for mental health and substance use disorders. “With the influx of funding to bolster and improve treatment services, we must also give attention to enhancing recovery support services,” said José Esquibel, director of the Consortium, “It is imperative that individuals not only receive the treatment services they need, but to also ensure they can also access services that help them continue in recovery, including the support of a recovery friendly workplace.”

To assist businesses, the Consortium is partnering with John Narine, author of Leading Workplace Addiction, to develop the Colorado Recovery-Friendly Workplace Toolkit. The recourse will provide employers with best practices for creating a workplace and leadership culture that supports employees struggling with addiction, strengthening employee performance, and enhancing the success of a business.

As part of the new initiative, CHWE will feature its signature outreach program, Health Links™, to reach and engage employers that are interested in supporting employees struggling with behavioral health issues. Tenney and her team will offer the Workplace Mental Health Module developed to help organizations assess what their current efforts to improve policies and practices that create a positive workplace culture. Tenney and members of the Center are eager to discuss this program in further detail with those interested.

On September 8, 2022, the initiative will also launch the Recovery Friendly Workplace Peer Learning Series – a four-part virtual workshop for Colorado business leaders with a mixed format of case studies and peer discussion. Participants will represent a nominated group of business leaders from a range of industries and professional backgrounds. Interested business leaders are welcome to nominate themselves or others for this series here.

“The goal of this educational series is to bring passionate business leaders together to learn and share how recovery friendly policies and program really work in practice,” Tenney said. “We hope to learn how public health can better support employers and workers on this topic. We know that employers acknowledge the importance. This will be the first opportunity for Colorado business champions to step up and act collectively.”

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