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Mental Health Champions: The most important thing we can do to de-stigmatize mental health is to “break the silence”, With Michael Thompson

The most important thing we can do to de-stigmatize mental health is to “break the silence.” Increasingly we are seeing companies implement programs that acknowledge mental illness as an issue and encourage people to accept and provide support to those impacted. These efforts to move beyond “don’t ask don’t tell” have generated a rich dialogue […]


The most important thing we can do to de-stigmatize mental health is to “break the silence.” Increasingly we are seeing companies implement programs that acknowledge mental illness as an issue and encourage people to accept and provide support to those impacted. These efforts to move beyond “don’t ask don’t tell” have generated a rich dialogue and much goodwill with employees while also improving acceptance and engagement on mental health issues (e.g., use of employee assistance program services).


As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Michael Thompson. He is president and CEO of the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, is a nationally-recognized advocate for mental health and wellbeing. Prior to joining the National Alliance, a nonprofit network of more than 50 business coalitions, supporting 12,000 purchasers and 45 million Americans, spending more than $300 billion annually on healthcare, Michael was a Principal at PricewaterhouseCoopers for 20 years. Thompson is a sought after thought leader for insight into business health strategies and health system reform. He has worked with major employers and other stakeholders on sustainable cost reduction, integrated health, wellness and consumerism, retiree health, private health exchanges, and health reform. Michael is a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries, serving on the Health Practice Council, chairs the Medicare Sub-Committee of the American Academy of Actuaries (AAA) and was Past President of the New York City chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI).


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have been in healthcare my entire career and have had the opportunity to see it and influence it from multiple perspectives — employers, payers, providers, and pharmaceuticals. But it is my family’s personal experiences that have really led to my passion, focus, and advocacy on mental health and wellbeing.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

The stigma related to mental illness dates to when little was understood about the causes and less was known on how to effectively treat mental illness. It was largely viewed as an issue of character, not chemistry. This legacy leads many to assume that the problem was merely one of an individual not being able to cope with the demands and pressures of their lives or that their environment — family, work, etc. — was entirely the issue. While there has been progress in general attitudes, most continue to not feel safe to talk about their issues publicly for fear of the judgments that will ensue.

Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?

The most important thing we can do to de-stigmatize mental health is to “break the silence.” Increasingly we are seeing companies implement programs that acknowledge mental illness as an issue and encourage people to accept and provide support to those impacted. These efforts to move beyond “don’t ask don’t tell” have generated a rich dialogue and much goodwill with employees while also improving acceptance and engagement on mental health issues (e.g., use of employee assistance program services).

Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?

Our efforts related to workplace mental health were started as a collaboration between NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and the business community (through our coalitions). There was a shared interest to advance the mental health agenda and improve the services that employees and their families were receiving. The result was an unraveling of multiple inter-related issues that affect us both culturally as well as from a health system perspective. As a result, we are tackling both the cultural and system related issues. There is much still to do.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

We all have a role in improving mental health and wellbeing.

As individuals, we need to embrace and prioritize a holistic approach to our own wellbeing while being accepting, non-judgmental and supportive of others who are dealing with mental illness. When friends and colleagues are not themselves, don’t be afraid to engage and support them and guide them to the help they need.

As a society, we need to deal with systemic changes to support the mental health and wellbeing of our people. This includes early identification and prevention strategies, better integration of mental health treatment into the mainstream of healthcare system (e.g., primary care) as well as improved focus and accountability on outcomes that help individuals recover and achieve a better quality of life.

Finally, the government needs to better prioritize mental health in our overall community health and population health strategies. It was recognized at the World Economic Forum that the economic impact of mental illness exceeds all other illnesses yet the investment in mental health is a fraction of that for other health issues.

What are the 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

1) Stay Active and Fit — Exercise is not only good for your body, but it is also good for your mind. It can also help you to recover from the demands and pressures of daily life. I try to do vigorous exercise (cross fit) 3–4 times per week including weekends.

2) Stay Connected — Loneliness and isolation are key risk factors for mental illness and other health conditions. Being engaged with friends and loved ones keep me fresh. As importantly, sharing what is bothering me, can be a huge and healthy relief.

3) Live with Passion and Purpose — Energy can be inspired when you care about the consequences of what you do. When work is not purposeful, it can be a heavy burden and the time doing it a major drag but when you believe in it, it flies!

4) Plan downtime — Being “on” all the time can burn even high performers out. I take time for lunch, put the cell phone away on nights and weekends and plan and take my vacations.

5) Don’t keep score — when it comes to well-being, it is always better to give than to receive. Helping others can be a “high” and very rewarding while expecting reciprocal treatment can be a drain and invariably leads to disappointment. If I don’t expect much, then anything I receive is a gift that exceeds my expectations

6) Laugh a lot — don’t take yourself too seriously — few things truly matter in the end. The more I mix work and play, the more seamless life is and the more likely I can sustain both success and happiness!

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

I love listening to passionate people who inspire others. Great orators have a gift that keeps on giving!

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