In response to Colorado’s mental health and substance use epidemic

The Center for Health, Work, and 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 collaborative effort between public health organizations and employers.

To address the staggering increase in substance use, mental health needs, and substance-related deaths among the American workforce, CHWE received federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to develop and launch the Benevolent Recovery Initiative work place. 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 is having on the rise of poor mental health and substance use disorders,” said Lily Tenney, Ph.D., MPH, assistant professor at ColoradoSPH, associate director of outreach and programs at CHWE and head of the project. “We know that for workers who were already at high risk for mental and behavioral health problems, isolation only exacerbated that struggle and continued substance use. We’ve seen an increase in health risks, including sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and more.

CHWE is joining with its longtime partner, the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, to help Colorado employers address these behavioral health issues. The project will focus on reaching employers in high-risk industries, including construction and agriculture, and in urban and rural Colorado.

The state Legislature is committing $450 million from ARPA to improve Colorado’s behavioral health system, which will increase access to treatment for mental illness and substance use disorders. “With the influx of funding to strengthen and improve treatment services, we must also look at improving services to support recovery,” said Jose Esquibel, Director of the Consortium, “It is imperative that people not only receive treatment services, from who need it, but also to ensure that they can also access services that help them continue their recovery, including the maintenance of a recovery-friendly workplace.”

To assist businesses, the Consortium partnered with John Narine, author of Leading Addiction in the Workplace, to develop a recovery-friendly workplace toolkit in Colorado. The retreat will provide employers with best practices for creating a workplace and leadership culture that supports employees struggling with addiction, boosts employee performance, and increases business success.

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

On September 8, 2022, the initiative will also launch the Recovery Fit Workplace Education Series, a four-part virtual workshop for Colorado business leaders with a blended 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 policies and programs really work in practice,” Tenney said. “We hope to learn how public health can better support employers and workers on this topic.” We know employers recognize the importance. This will be the first opportunity for Colorado business champions to step up and act collectively.”

This initiative is supported by funds provided by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden on March 12, 2021. ARPA allocates funds specifically to state and local governments to help recover from the COVID- 19. Additional support from grant number or cooperative agreement, U19OH011227, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For the Center for Health, Labor and Environment

The Center for Health, Work and Environment is an academic center within the Colorado School of Public Health. The center is one of 10 Centers of Excellence for Total Worker Health® and houses the Mountain and Plains Education and Research Center (MAP ERC), one of 18 such centers maintained by the National Safety Institute and Occupational Health (NIOSH). The Center’s team works with faculty, students and community partners to improve the health, safety and well-being of workers. The Center is committed to developing education, research, and public health initiatives that combat issues of racial and environmental inequality and injustice facing workers. To effectively address the future of work, we aim to provide a healthier and safer workplace for all. The Center’s main offices are located on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colorado.

About the Colorado Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention Consortium

The Colorado Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention Consortium is the community arm of the Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, which is housed in the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences on the Anschutz Medical Campus of the University of Colorado. The center coordinates Colorado’s statewide response to the abuse of drugs such as opioids, stimulants and sedatives. The Center’s mission is to reduce prescription drug misuse and abuse in Colorado by developing policies, programs and partnerships with state agencies, professional associations, non-profit organizations and community coalitions to address one of Colorado’s major public health crises.


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