Mental health is at the forefront of many Iowans’ minds as they struggle to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and the derecho.

As the executive director of the Healthiest State Initiative, Jami Haberl understands the importance of addressing mental health in the aftermath of these devastating events. The initiative is a nonprofit organization dedicated to making Iowa the healthiest state in the nation.

“The tiredness that comes with any type of disaster, especially the pandemic, which has lasted an extraordinary length of time, wears on people – it’s stressful,” Haberl explains. “Our goal is to keep looking at what organizations are doing to make sure that mental health is a part of their culture and a key component of their overall health and well-being plan.”

To help spark conversations and reduce stigma around mental illness, the Healthiest State Initiative teamed up with HealthPartners to launch its Make It OK campaign in Iowa in 2019. Make It OK provides the tools and resources to help educate and openly talk about mental illness, increasing awareness and making it easier for those in need to feel okay asking for help.

One out of every five people experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime. Make It OK – Iowa seeks to engage organizations and community members across the state with focused educational efforts directed toward the four out of five people who do not have mental health conditions. Ultimately, the goal is to decrease stigma around mental illness and reduce barriers to mental health resources and treatment.

“We talk about mental health because we're trying to normalize it,” says Haberl. “When we are talking about health and wellness, it has been our goal to focus on the emotional, along with the physical and social aspects of well-being.”

1. Make It OK commitment

By officially registering their organization on the Healthiest State Initiative website, Iowa employers declare their intent to end mental health stigma in the workplace. This public statement sends a powerful message to their employees about how committed they are to their well-being and how much they value them.

Plus, it may result in increased employee productivity, reduced absenteeism and better hiring outcomes.

"Make It OK gave us the opportunity to take what Minnesota created and see how it could work in the state of Iowa,” Haberl explains. “Registration allows us to track and generate more data about what is working, what isn’t and where we could make improvements.”

After signing up, employers get access to the Make It OK Employer Toolkit, which guides them through creating a plan to address stigma and discrimination around mental illness. It provides steps to implement that plan and ways to measure the results. Employers also receive a quarterly newsletter, additional support tools and resources, and recognition for their commitment on

2. Encourage employee participation

“We have conversations with human resources (HR) directors trying to figure out: How do they support Make It OK?” says Haberl. “What does mental health look like when employees return to their workplace and things have changed due to this pandemic? How do we change our culture so that we get the happiest, most productive, present employees working for us every day?”

Haberl encourages these organizations to promote employee participation in all of the Make It OK programs, tools and events.

Make It OK Iowa offers a number of ways to learn about mental illness and help break down the stigma surrounding it. In addition to the Employer Toolkit, there are Make It OK Stories: The Podcast, blogs about how to talk about mental illness and learn about common conditions, and a library of stories from real Iowans sharing their experiences with mental illness.

3. Train ambassadors

Ambassadors are the key to the success of Make It OK – Iowa: “They are my army of trusted messengers who can help change attitudes around mental health stigma,” says Haberl.

Make It OK – Iowa ambassadors are passionate about educating their communities on the importance of supporting mental health in the workplace. Ambassadors are required to complete a two-hour in-person or virtual training session to learn about common diagnoses and symptoms, but they don’t need to be mental health experts to qualify for this role. They also receive guidance on what to say and not say to help normalize conversations about mental health.

“People will then use what they’ve learned to start and respond to conversations differently,” Haberl says. “And that's what it's going to take to truly move the needle around stigma.”

Once training is complete, ambassadors receive access to the Make It OK PowerPoint presentation and other customized tools and resources designed to help them spread the word about the program through their personal and professional networks.

“Ambassadors are so important because mental illness is such a personal, difficult topic to discuss. And to help reduce stigma, people need to talk to someone they know and trust – someone who can speak their language and understand their way of life.”

Haberl said that with more than 800 ambassadors trained, and as the number of requests to participate in the program grows, they will soon have the ability to effectively address the mental health needs of more than 3 million Iowans across the state – including those in hard-to-reach rural communities.

4. Set up an employee assistance program (EAP)

Employees need a safe place to go to get help with issues that may hinder their ability to be productive at work. An EAP offers confidential services to employees for issues like mental health, substance abuse or family concerns without fear of job loss.

According to the 2019 SHRM Employee Benefits research report, approximately 79% of employers across the country offer EAP services. However, the Healthiest State Initiative reports that these services tend to be underutilized and that the key to boosting employee engagement with their EAP is effective internal communication.

“Organizations should routinely inform and educate employees about the benefits of EAP resources and how they can ultimately help them perform better at work,” says Haberl.

Companies that spend the time and money to set up an EAP see an average return on investment (ROI) of $3 or more for every $1 spent. Those results can have many positive effects on their workforce, including lower absenteeism, higher morale, motivation and productivity at work, fewer workplace accidents, and increased employee retention.

Long-term solution

“It took the pandemic for many employers to realize mental health issues have always existed,” Haberl says. “More people than ever before were hit hard by this disaster and are experiencing some type of anxiety, whether diagnosed or not, just from having to deal with all of the uncertainty.”

Haberl's hope for the future is that employers across the state will continue to make mental health and well-being a part of their culture and adopt all of the steps from the Make It OK – Iowa program to reduce stigma in the workplace.

She says it’s critical for the future success of these companies, individuals and ultimately the community because "mental illness isn’t just going to go away when we're all back at work. There are going to be lingering effects of this disaster unlike any other.”

Reduce stigma in your workplace by engaging with the Make It OK – Iowa program. Register your workplace, sign up for ambassador training, access resources and stories, and more.