You know what Craig Kramer gets when he tells the world he’s a mental health professional? He gets people telling him their struggles.

As it turns out, that’s a terrific thing. Kramer, mental health ambassador and chair of the Global Campaign on Mental Health at Janssen Pharmaceticals/Johnson & Johnson, wants people to talk about their mental health issues. He wants to remove the stigma that keeps people from getting the help they need, particularly in the workplace, where mental health troubles cost businesses more time and money than any other illness.

Kramer will present “The Business Case for Transforming Mental Health” at the Princeton Chamber’s monthly membership luncheon on Thursday, June 2, at 11:30 a.m. at the Princeton Marriott. Cost: $70. Visit www.princetonchamber.org.

Kramer was born and raised in Michigan before coming to Princeton University in the early 1980s to get his bachelor’s in public and international affairs. He attended law school at the University of Michigan and in 1987 started as a staff attorney at the International Human Rights Law Group in South Korea.

He came back to the states to be an associate attorney at Patton, Boggs, & Blow in Washington, D.C. less than a year later. He then joined the staff of U.S. Rep. Sander Levin (D-Michigan) in 1993, eventually becoming chief of staff.

Kramer was content to be an attorney in policy until his daughter, Katharine, changed his life. Kramer joined J&J in 1998, eventually moving to New Jersey. The move coincided with the onset of puberty for Katharine, and the result of all the stress was an eating disorder. In an interview published by J&J in 2015, Katharine spoke about being out of control with her environment and the deeper issues that make eating disorders happen. It’s not about the food; it’s about coping.

Kramer was suddenly faced with a genuine family crisis and a genuinely ill child. When he sat and talked with her about what was really going on, he says, a whole new perception opened up. And not just with Katharine. He soon realized that mental illness is probably pervasive in every family.

Earlier this year, after nearly 20 working in the government and policy sector at J&J, Kramer became the company’s mental health ambassador and has quickly become the face of its efforts to get the message across to businesses and governments everywhere that mental health is real, it’s a medical condition, and it’s a big deal.

The unpleasant stats. Exact numbers of how many people suffer from mental disorders and the amount of work hours lost because of them are not easy to come by. But all indicators point toward significant. In a report published in “Health Affairs” on May 18 stated that Americans spent $201 billion on mental disorders, including anxiety and depression, in 2013, making mental health the costliest healthcare problem in the country. In 2015, Tom Insel, director of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health told the World Economic Forum that “the economic costs of mental illness will be more than cancer, diabetes, and respiratory ailments put together.”

Mental illness, Kramer says, “is the healthcare challenge … maybe even the economic challenge of our generation.” One in four people, he says, are affected by some mental illness, which means that the remaining three are taking care of the person afflicted.

The good stats. Kramer cites a recent report by U.K. medical journal The Lancet, which found that for every dollar (or pound) companies invest in mental health for their employees, they get three to five in return. The reason, Kramer says, is because absenteeism drops, and so does “presenteeism” — the phenomenon of “being there, but you’re not really there.”

And when it comes to getting help, Kramer says, 90 percent of people who get some level of mental healthcare show improvement. For businesses worldwide, the difference can add up to trillions of dollars — so long as leaders accept that mental health is a physical illness like anything else.

The stigma. “I’m 55 years old,” Kramer says. “When I was a kid, nobody talked about cancer. There was a stigma.” That statement today, when there are races for the cure and the NFL goes pink every October, seems patently absurd. But in 1970, having cancer was hush-hush and embarrassing.

Mental health still suffers the same fate, Kramer says. People who never had a mental problem don’t get it and people who have are often afraid to talk about it. They’re afraid of being mocked or seen as weak. A lot of people don’t get the help they need, and those who do often stop taking their meds after a month because they feel a little better and are afraid of the stigma if they continue.

“You wouldn’t stop your chemo treatment, though, would you?” he asks. Kramer would also love to see the day when races for mental health and pro sports teams raising awareness for the problem became commonplace enough to make these still-current stigma issues patently absurd.

What companies can do. “Start anywhere,” Kramer says. “Just start the conversation.”

Kramer, through J&J is working to get business and government leaders to encourage these first words. Start talking about personal experiences. Open up and let people be honest. Let employees know they won’t lose their jobs. Let them know it’s a medical condition, not a character weakness. Let them know it’s more common than they think. And let them know there are treatment options.

Also, invest in a mental health first aid program, akin to the one he learned as a Peer to Peer volunteer when he was a Princeton student. Mental health first aid is an introduction to what kinds of signs and symptoms to watch out for and the ability to address problems until the victim gets the proper treatment. The training could help in simple ways, such as noticing when someone at work seems “a little off,” he says. Don’t just shrug it off, it might be a sign that someone is suffering from a problem that will just get worse over time.

“Don’t try to tough it out,” Kramer says. “Get help.” Take a lesson from the tough guys. Kramer points out that elite military units like the Green Berets and SEALs employ the most mental health professionals because they understand that the ability to cope with the brutal realities of the job is essential to performing it and the value of not losing good troops to a psychological break.

“The two toughest words for anyone to say are ‘help me,’” Kramer says. “Real heroes ask for help.”

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