In an effort to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and decrease insurance costs, the University launched a web-based program called Understanding U last month.

Though the resource is designed to help faculty and staff feel more comfortable with addressing mental health issues, some employees were skeptical about the program’s effectiveness.

Understanding U is part of University President Mary Sue Coleman’s Michigan Healthy Community Initiative. The plan, announced in April of 2004, aims to promote healthy living on campus.

Tom Waldecker, director of the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program and the co-chair of the Understanding U advisory committee, said the program includes several components, including a website with self-help and self-screening tools, training for supervisors and a printed guide for employees without access to the Internet. The website also provides University supervisors with guides to recognize mental health issues among their employees so they can help them.

Other large public institutions like the University of Virginia and the University of California at Berkeley already offer similar online resources to faculty.

LaVaughn Palma-Davis, senior director of Health and Well-Being Services, said Understanding U was created in response to growing concern about mental health issues on campus.

“We looked at what were big issues in the Michigan health community, and as we looked at the data, we found that mental health was one of the top issues,” Palma-Davis said.

Along with providing a more stable work environment, offering a resource to help employees cope with mental health issues benefits the University because it could lower health care costs, said Psychiatry Prof. Ken Silk, a co-chair of the initiative’s advisory committee. Silk said that the website could help diagnose a serious health risk early on, possibly reducing treatment costs for both the University and its employees.

“In the long run, one of the biggest concerns that’s facing major corporations, including universities, is the rising cost of health care,” Silk said. “There’s evidence to show that if you can get employees to be more interested in their health, then you can lower health care costs.”

Palma-Davis agreed, saying one of the program’s major goals is to save the University money. Mental health-related issues account for 20 percent of the University’s long-term disability claims. Antidepressants were the top pharmaceutical cost at the University last year.

The program was also designed to erase the stigma tied to mental health issues by providing a resource to explain often misunderstood illnesses to faculty members.

Waldecker said faculty members have told him that they don’t know where to find the resources to address their mental health issues. He said he hopes Understanding U will fix that.

But some faculty said they don’t know if it will work.

Fritz Swanson, a lecturer in the English department, said Understanding U represents a typical University response to a problem – creating a large agency to deal with it rather than requiring each department to address it individually.

“It sounds like an expensive way to not deal with the problem,” Swanson said.

Nicholas Theisen, a graduate student instructor in comparative literature, agreed.

“When someone has genuine systematic problems, providing a resource is not enough,” he said.

Silk said one of the main advantages of an online resource, though, is the anonymity, because screenings on the site are confidential.

“People can explore what they’re feeling without having to go through the barrier of having to talk to someone,” Silk said.

Silk said that because mental health issues are so widespread, it’s necessary to make the program open to everyone.

“What the website is trying to say is that everybody has stress and that stress is a normal part of life,” he said. “If you have stress and it’s keeping you from doing your best, there are places you can go.”

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