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roni frank

co-founder & head of clinical relations
@talkspace

Roni Frank:
All of us are here today because we recognize that mental health matters. You being here acknowledges that. Today, I’d like to talk about an issue that is more personal to me as a female co-founder: the mental health challenges for women in the workplace. The realities of the workplace are difficult for all women to navigate. Study after study show that as a woman, it’s harder to get your foot in the door, you are less likely to be promoted once you’re in, you get less credit for your accomplishments, and your path to the top will be harder. And while it seems like we have made some progress over the years, sexual harassment is still a pervasive problem. One in three women has been sexually harassed in the workplace. Only 29% of those have reported it.

I’ve been lucky in some ways during my career; I have not faced a great deal of harassment. Yet Talkspace is a technology startup, a field dominated by men, with many companies and executives fostering environments hostile to women. More shockingly are the numbers for domestic violence. Over the course of a lifetime, one in three women are the victim of some kind of physical violence by an intimate partner. Talkspace has over 1,500 therapists, and they see and hear these painful stories directly from clients. I’ve heard secondhand their fear. One client told her therapist, “Every time I buy something for the kids without my husband’s permission, he takes it from them to spite me. When I go back at him and say that’s wrong and that the kids didn’t do anything, he takes it out on me.”

Another client shared, “I’m not allowed to leave the house without his permission. Even if I need to go to the doctor, I need to ask if it’s okay. The other day, I left home without telling him, and when I came back, he pushed me to the wall and threatened me. I was so scared.” It’s hard to imagine how devastating it is to live with such a crippling fear, how tragic is the isolation, the control, the violence. Another client told a therapist, “Every time my boss calls, my husband accuses me of being a slut, and that I must be sleeping with him. Then, I usually get punished. He pushes me to bed, and I know what’s coming.”

Think about how this impacts every aspect of a woman’s life, how destructive to her mental health, how humiliating. Yet another client said recently, “I have three small children, and at the end of the day, I’m tired. He forces me to have sex with him. It’s getting more and more violent. Many days, I just cannot go to work because there are visible marks.” These women are us. People in this room have been or will be the victims of abuse. You might look around to see who might have experienced something so dreadful. There are a lot of reasons why people stay silent. You might worry your competence at work is questioned. There is huge cultural stigma, and there is judgment from friends, family, community. There is the sense of shame and weakness that the abusers cultivate in their victims.

For employers, there should not be separation between the personal and the professional. The success of our companies depends on the mental strength and wellness of our employees. I’m not talking just about business costs for mental health, though they are huge. Mental health accounts for 30% of disability costs, and $100 billion per year in lost worker productivity. But more importantly, these are moral issues. This is about human dignity. This is about offering support to employees, who often spend more time with us than they do with their families. This is about doing our part to end the needless suffering of women.

Standing by people when they experience a mental health problem also sends a message about your organization’s values. All employees need to see that their organization lives its values and treats its people well. Trust and integrity are key drivers of engagement, and organizations that support staff reap the benefits in terms of loyalty and commitment from all employees. For female victims of domestic violence, the realities of their lives make it impossible to access mental health care at a brick-and-mortar therapist’s office. They desperately need help. EAPs, one of the only ways employers use to address these issues, offer three to six sessions, even for such severe mental health cases. This is unacceptable and outrageous. We must do better. Mental health is essential to overall health, and providing access is critical. It’s our responsibility to our employees. And so far, we have been failing them. I’m calling CEOs, HR executives, benefit decision-makers, to be responsible, to recognize the impact you have on people’s lives, and to take action to broaden access to care.

I’m pleased to announce that Talkspace is pledging a special donation of 500 free months of online therapy per year to women who are the victims of domestic abuse. This is just a small part of ensuring that women who need it most are able to speak with a licensed professional about their life, their pain, their relationships, their workplace, and their mental health challenges. Here is to offering everyone a better future. Here is to all of you for recognizing that mental health matters. Here is to women. Thank you.