How city managers can support the mental health of residents & employees

Lee Feldman

Lee Feldman

Senior Advisor for Local Government Strategy

How city managers can support the mental health of residents & employees

The mental health impact of the pandemic has been top-of-mind from almost the start, when schools began shutting down and remote learning became the norm in many cities across the US. While the negative effects of COVID-19 on the well-being of children have certainly been at the forefront of COVID talk over the past two years, the pandemic’s mental health toll on the community-at-large has only more recently made headlines. As these headlines highlight, the toll is too high. But the reality is that the well-being cost of COVID is neither new nor fleeting – but has been brewing and continues to brew. 

From my perspective, the past few years have given rise to a perfect storm – where COVID-19 is one of the biggest contributing stressors – and a storm that is unavoidable for our residents, our employees, and ourselves as city managers. 

In a perfect storm, a series of stressors come together to create an all-powerful force. The combination of social unrest resulting from the murder of George Floyd; a struggling economy with high inflation; and a real threat to physical well-being from COVID have been major stressors for our community health, our economic health, and our physical health. Perhaps, if the past few years had thrown only one of these major stressors on us, things would be a little easier, but for almost all Americans – and certainly, some more than others – the past few years have led to the present mental health crisis. 

Nonetheless, I believe that although we could not necessarily constrain these stressors or their impact (to say the least), we as local government managers are in a unique position to help our residents manage the mental health challenges that so many are facing, and not just in terms of services.

Supporting the mental health of employees

  1. Recognize that different employees are facing different challenges (and then mitigate those challenges)

Your workforce is extremely important, and identifying the different challenges they are facing is a first step in supporting their mental health. Keep in mind that different employees are facing different challenges. You have staff who cannot work remotely: your police officers, firefighters and paramedics, your public works crews, your bus drivers, water and wastewater plant operators, and more. They have a different set of mental health issues and potentially physical health threats than remote workers, who may be isolated, working while their kids are also home for online learning. Different mental health stressors require different support structures, and so as a manager, try to recognize this. The best way to do this is to listen and to have candid conversations. Doing so will put you in a better position to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on well-being.

  • Talk to your employees, including those working remotely – individually and at the human level 
  • Hear their challenges and help them understand you want to be a source of support no matter what those challenges are
  • Share a personal story if you can – sometimes that helps. 
  1. Provide access to mental health counseling

This one should be simple. As an employer, make sure your employees know where to seek mental health counseling. Some cities might have the capacity to have a counselor in-house. Others may have a robust set of services in place for residents at the city or county level. And in some communities, these services are deeply embedded in faith-based and nonprofit organizations. Take it upon yourself or your team to consolidate a list of readily available services and to ensure that your employees have access to this list.

  1. Help reduce the stigma against seeking mental health assistance

As a leader and manager, this is perhaps where you are best positioned to provide support. The stigma against seeking mental help is probably one of the biggest barriers to well-being your employees and your residents face. This very much goes back to point 1 – talk about mental health. Talk about how these are exceptional times. Open up the channels of communication around the subject matter. On the human level and on the more formal, organizational level. 

With everything in this blog that I outline, effectively addressing mental health issues comes down to addressing the stigma of mental health issues. The only way we can address mental health successfully – for an individual, employees, for ourselves, and for residents – is by working on effective ways to remove the stigma of getting help. Without this, mental health services and support systems will not be leveraged.

  1. Train your managers to talk about mental health

And let these conversations trickle down. Make sure the managers in your organization know how to identify drops in well-being in their staff, including some of the coping mechanisms of emotional stress such as abusing alcohol or drugs, sleeplessness, high stress, and so forth. More than that, make sure they know how to address mental health challenges – or who in the city or county can support them in supporting their staff. Training your managers to talk about mental health does not have to be an intense, formal training, it is as much about raising awareness and having the conversation to normalize the topic as anything else.

Supporting the mental health of residents

When it comes to residents, the city has a lot of power in shaping messaging, reducing stigmas, directing residents to support services, and more. 

  1. Partner in the community to identify mental health needs

In many ways, I think of residents as an extension of employees – multiplied a few times over. But unlike employees, where you yourself can have conversations and work with managers to permeate all levels of the organization, talking to all of your residents is usually near impossible. But, you can work with the organizations that are talking to your residents. The best way to identify your community’s needs around mental health is to partner with the organizations on the ground – be it faith-based organizations, schools, NGOs, and more. Knowing and understanding your community needs will help you think of ways to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health. 

In parallel, there is a lot of data you can be collecting and tracking to measure mental health in your community. Calls for service for both police officers and firefighters, crude numbers like suicide attempts, drug overdoses, 2-1-1 statistics, and more.

  1. Reduce the stigma around mental health with messaging

Just talking about mental health helps reduce the stigma around facing mental health challenges and seeking support. As a manager, you can do this on the organizational level within city hall and you can also lead this conversation for your residents. Ensure that your local government is communicating about mental health – that the issues are real, that everyone is facing them, that help is available, and how to seek help. This can be done in a social media campaign, in partnership with local news channels, and in coordination with community organizations. Whatever the message is, make sure it is visible to the community, positive, and open. And, most importantly, engage your community and measure the effectiveness of the messaging through community surveys.

  1. Become a trusted source for information about mental health services

Whether or not mental health services are something your organization provides to the community, your residents expect you to have the answers. More than just gathering and consolidating information around mental health – think about how you can make it as easy as possible for residents to find this information. 

  • Think about where on your website you talk about mental health and whether this needs to become a more front-and-center topic
  • Ensure your mental health messaging and information doesn’t get drowned out by the many other competing messages out there around COVID
  • Become a continuous source of information – don’t let mental health be a one-time-hot-topic for your government

Most importantly … Take care of yourself

When COVID hit and I was still a city manager, I asked myself regularly how I could show empathy to people – my community builders and my community members. One way I chose to do this was by coming into the office every single day. Even though we had sent a majority of city employees home, I made it a point to go in, just like everybody else whose job required them to show up, to show my team that I’m in this too. But being in this too also means taking care of yourself – whatever that might mean. It can mean scheduling lunch time on your calendar, spending time with family and friends (even if on Zoom), making a conscious choice to put down your work and pick up a hobby (I am learning Hebrew). Craft your own mental health plan, with whatever self-care means for you, and don’t forget to prioritize it. And finally, these are exceptional times, so make sure to go easy on yourself.

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