Responding to Colorado’s mental health and substance use epidemic

Two coworkers smiling and chatting, seated at a meeting

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

To answer the staggering increase in substance-use, mental health needs, and substance-related deaths in the American workforce, CHWE has received federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to develop and launch the Recovery Friendly Workplace Initiative. 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 has played in the rise of poor mental health and substance use disorders,” said Lili Tenney, DrPH, MPH, assistant professor at the ColoradoSPH, associate director for outreach and programs at CHWE and project lead. “We know that for workers who were already high risk for mental and behavioral health struggles, isolation has only worsened that struggle and perpetuated substance use. We have seen health risks increase including sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and others.” 

CHWE rejoins its long-standing partner, the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, to assist Colorado employers in addressing these behavioral health issues. The project will focus on reaching employers in high-risk industries including construction and agriculture and across urban and rural areas of Colorado. 

The state legislature is appropriating $450 million from ARPA to enhance Colorado’s behavioral health system, which will increase access to treatment for mental health and substance use disorders. “With the influx of funding to bolster and improve treatment services, we must also give attention to enhancing recovery support services,” said José Esquibel, director of the Consortium, “It is imperative that individuals not only receive the treatment services they need, but to also ensure they can also access services that help them continue in recovery, including the support of a recovery friendly workplace.” 

To assist businesses, the Consortium is partnering with John Narine, author of Leading Workplace Addiction, to develop the Colorado Recovery-Friendly Workplace Toolkit. The recourse will provide employers with best practices for creating a workplace and leadership culture that supports employees struggling with addiction, strengthening employee performance, and enhancing the success of a business.  

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

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

This initiative is supported by funds allocated from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden on March 12, 2021. The ARPA distributes funds specifically to state and local governments to aid in COVID- 19 recovery. Additional support from the Grant or Cooperative Agreement Number, U19OH011227, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

About the Center for Health, Work & Environment 

The Center for Health, Work & 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 centers of its kind supported by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The Center team works with faculty, students, and community partners to advance worker health, safety, and well-being. The Center is committed to develop education, research, and public health practice initiatives that combat the problems of racial and environmental inequity and injustice facing workers. To effectively address the future of work, we aim to ensure a healthier and safer workplace for all. Main offices for the Center are located at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colorado.  

About the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention 

The Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention is the community engagement arm of the Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, which is housed in the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. The Center coordinates Colorado’s statewide response to the misuse of medications 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, nonprofit organizations, and community coalitions addressing one of the Colorado’s major public health crises. 





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