May is Mental Health Month! Across the world, many companies are highlighting mental wellness, mental health condition awareness and recovery. Over the past 25 years, I have been helping organizations create effective mental health campaigns, and here are 10 tips I’ve learned and resources I’ve discovered to help your mental health awareness campaigns be most successful.
1. Normalize struggle safely
One goal for many mental health campaigns is to let people know they are not alone. When mental illnesses and suicidal crises strike, people often suffer in silence. By letting people know that others have lived through similar challenges, campaigns can offer hope and community. Pain shared is pain lessened. The trap that some mental health campaigns fall into, however, is overemphasizing the prevalence of extreme behaviors as an “epidemic.” This type of messaging can make people feel hopeless about change. Worse, when it comes to suicide, this type of exaggeration might even create a cultural script that inadvertently influences people to engage in suicidal behavior, because it is the “norm” of what people do to cope with pain. Following the safe messaging guidelines helps ensure that the messages they are sending are promoting health and not creating additional risk.
2. Offer screening tools that lead to action
Screening is a great example of a low-cost, high-impact tool to highlight during mental health campaigns. As with other health issues, screening for mental health conditions increases the likelihood that we can identify emerging symptoms and alter their course with early intervention. Screening offers people a way to anonymously self-assess, which is often an attractive first step for those who are ambivalent about seeking help. A screening that just gives participant a label, however, will fall short. Effective screening tools give participants a call to action and link them to additional local and on-line resources. Many on-line and paper screening options exist (e.g., Screening for Mental Health), and nationally recognized days can make screening a part of a community’s regular health programming:
See also: New Approach to Mental Health
3. Know your resources on a first-person basis
Effective mental health campaign leaders do their homework. If you want to be a trusted referral source, you need to walk your talk. Get to know your local mental health providers. Visit your local psychiatric hospital. Invite local counselors to a “meet and greet” event. Call your local crisis line, text the Crisis Text Line or contact your EAP (employee assistance program) to get a better sense of how it works. Ask the questions you need to have answered so you can refer people confidently. Your referral will be so much stronger if you can say, “Oh, I know Dr. So-n-so, she’s really approachable and competent. I’ll take you there to meet her if you’d like.”
- Need more information about EAPs? Here is a buyer’s guide:
4. Share stories of hope and recovery
A main goal of many mental health campaigns is to reduce the stigma of mental illness; however, paradoxically, the more we talk about stigma, the more we actually reinforce it. Instead, we can fight stigma by sharing stories of hope and recovery. When we can demonstrate how others transform their wounds into sources of power, we create hope. When respected people come forward and say, “I suffered, and I got better,” others feel they can get better, too, and the issues become less marginalized. When campaigns highlight the experience of living with a mental health condition, focus on the turning points, the coping and resilience and the interventions that worked. One powerful storytelling resource that models best practices in safe and effective testimonies is the photojournalism of Dese’Rae Stage. Her project “Live through This” is an anthology of portraits and interviews of people who have lived through their own suicide attempt. Dese’Rae’s story and project are highlighted in a new documentary just released in April 2017 called “The S Word.”
5. Make messaging attractive, compelling — and even fun
What attracts us to advertising? Messages that make us laugh, catch us off guard or inspire us. It’s human nature to turn away from things that are scary, confusing and depressing. The challenge for mental health campaigns is to make messaging uplifting, engaging and compelling without becoming so superficial they miss the point. Here are some examples of messages on the mark and one example of what not to do:
- Stop using “head-in-hands” despair imagery
- Michael Irvin “To My Brothers” video for the NFL Lifeline
- Man Therapy – a mental health campaign for men that uses humor to get results: www.ManTherapy.org
6. Tell people what you want them to remember
Sometimes, in our attempt to get attention to our cause, we play up tragic outcomes and overlook important calls to action and messages of hope. We need to tell people what we want them to remember: Treatment works, prevention is possible and people recover. Let people know what to do if they are struggling or if they are worried about a friend or loved one. Tell people exactly how to get involved in suicide prevention in their communities.
- More tips on creating an action-oriented, positive narrative
7. Engage leadership
Often, mental health campaigns gain momentum at the grassroots level – passionate families, students or faith community members come together and apply their collective energy to make changes. “Grass-top” approaches should also be considered to augment this strategy. People in positions of influence can often move things along more quickly and usually just need to know that people care about an issue. So, engage your leaders to start the conversation. Ask them to speak publicly on why mental health matters to them, why it’s an important health and safety topic for your workplace and how mental health challenges have shown up in their own lives. If they have experienced a mental health condition including depression, addiction or overwhelming stress themselves and have received any form of support that was helpful, their “lived experience” is often the most important driving force in changing culture within a company. By sharing their vulnerability and positioning their story as overcoming hardship by reaching out, they model for the rest that “we are all touched by this, and we can get through it together. I’ve got your back and will persist with you to get you the help you deserve.”
- Leadership messaging examples and tips from the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s Workplace Task Force
See also: Language and Mental Health (Part 3)
8. Provide opportunities for deep learning
Many mental health promotion efforts seek to promote awareness, but education alone will not move the needle. We call it the “State Trooper Effect.” We pay attention to educational or awareness raising efforts when they are done well and right in front of us, but once they are in our rear view mirror we tend to go back to what we were doing before. Deep learning goes beyond passive input of knowledge. Deep learning engages people in a knowing-being-doing process. Yes, education is part of that equation – a necessary, but not sufficient piece. We also need to get people “doing” – physically, emotionally and even spiritually involved in the work, and, to really make it stick, personal reflection on the experience is key.
One example of “learning, being, doing” is Project Helping – a corporate, positive psychology engagement program that gets people engaged in actions that create a caring culture at work.
9. Create a symbol of solidarity
We’ve seen how the color pink has symbolized breast cancer awareness. Symbols of solidarity work, but they need to be unique. When these symbols work well, people can see at a glance the community that is being built. Symbols used to promote suicide prevention can let people who are struggling know who might be a safe person to approach with questions. When the symbol of solidarity starts to spread to large groups of people it is a powerful testament to a person secretly in despair. Some examples of symbols of solidarity include:
- “Honor bead” necklaces worn at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of Darkness Walk. Participants choose to wear different colors to symbolize their experience – one color represents “I have lost a loved one to suicide,” another color might mean “I have struggled myself,” while another says that “I support the cause of suicide prevention.”
10. Promote belonging and purpose
Thomas Joiner’s model of suicide risk tells us that a thwarted feeling of belonging and a perception of being a burden are two critical factors that increase a desire for suicide; the opposites of these states are belonging and purpose. When we create meaningful communities and let people know they are needed, we are doing suicide prevention.
How can your mental health campaign help people connect to one another and find a new or renewed sense of purpose? How can people “pay kindness forward” and develop trusting relationships with one another?
Mental health awareness campaigns need to go beyond “awareness raising.” They need to do more than just share statistics and the local resources’ contact information. Promising campaigns model hope, inspire creatively, practice safe messaging and call us to action. The campaigns that are most effective go well beyond any awareness day, week or month and are “baked in” to a company’s health and safety culture. The ones that are truly culture-changing are “by, about and for” the people within the company; real employees telling real stories of hope and recovery. When we realize we have a secret we all share, the walls come down and we heal together.