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How PR Can Help Shape the Mental Health Conversation

Published on October 1, 2020, at 7:44 p.m.
by Allison Cohen

Since the medieval ages, mental health has carried negative stigmas, ranging from evil spirits controlling the mind to demons causing erratic behavior. Through the growth in psychological studies over time, science has debunked these medieval theories; however, the lack of public knowledge involving mental health is still remarkably extensive today. Though this concept is daunting, the field of public relations may be a significant part of the solution.

Public relations has become a powerhouse field, creating influential campaigns for everything from personal Instagram brands to billion-dollar tech company campaigns. PR tools involve reaching targeted groups to build relationships and using strategic plans to create favorable public images.

Over the years, organizations that support mental health awareness, like This Is My Brave and American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), have used PR tactics, such as strong social media campaigns, market research and special events, to increase brand awareness and educate the public. By using communication tools to drive brand recognition, mental health organizations are helping shape the conversation in a significant way.

AFSP uses campaigns to push awareness and to advocate for policy change. With Sept. 6 being the official start to National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, AFSP has organized its campaign #KeepGoing to help educate people about how to safeguard their mental health and ways to open up a conversation about mental health with family and friends. “We all have mental health just like we have physical health. The more we leverage PR to open up a conversation about mental health with the people in our lives, the more lives we will save — research tells us,” said Stephanie Rogers, senior vice president of communications and marketing at American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash

A significant part of this campaign is conducting research to assess public needs. “AFSP has worked with Harris Polls to conduct public perception surveys to better understand how people are experiencing mental health — both habits, behaviors and ways of connecting with one another about mental health,” Rogers said. “This research helps inform our campaign messaging and areas of focus for the campaign.” Along with this research, AFSP builds campaigns that include the voices of expert spokespeople, utilize social media influencers, build a strong online presence, and partner engagement to help extend the campaign reach.

Using hopeful messages — consistent messages of support, connection, hope, healing, and understanding — has been a pivotal part in shaping the mental health conversation. By utilizing partnerships with stakeholders in the media/entertainment industry and other fields, such as Netflix, Universal Music Group, WebMD and, AFSP educates new audiences to help inform and create a culture that’s smart about mental health. “Subtle changes in language and consistency of message help our culture to better understand that we all have mental health, just as we do physical health — and if we engage in regular conversations with those in our life about how they are doing, we all become smarter about mental health,” said Rogers.

Though education awareness campaigns are a key goal for mental health organizations, creating positive policy change is a goal equally substantial. Creating a public policy that can help prevent negative outcomes and support those dealing with mental health is an important aspect of mental health organizations that takes numerous public relations efforts to fuel. Advocating for crisis line funding and championing K-12 suicide prevention training are just two of the policy efforts for which AFSP raises awareness.

Advocating for policy change is a strategic effort that is used to drive change in communities. Spreading awareness for mental health illness through entertainment and crowd engagement is another aspect of communication that is being used today.

This Is My Brave, a mental health awareness and storytelling organization, invites individuals to tell their stories live, on stage. “At our shows, we ask people in the audience to stand if they have experienced mental illness or if they have a loved one who has. At every show, nearly everyone in the audience stands. The more we talk about mental health, normalize mental illness as just an illness, and share our experiences — people feel seen and understood, and that shame begins to shrink,” said Jenifer Marshall, co-founder and executive director of This Is My Brave.

Through event organization, community involvement, fundraising efforts, and crowd engagement, This Is My Brave has shared its message through multiple media outlets.

“We use a lot of marketing tools, including email, website, print materials like posters and postcards for in-person shows, organic social media content, paid social media content and advertising, and media relations work,” Marshall said. “Media relations work expands our reach and gives our storytellers new platforms for sharing; print materials work nicely within communities for event marketing; and social media and online content are essential in today’s world.”

Though mental health and public relations seem like an unusual pair from the outside, shaping the public image of mental health illnesses is a great endeavor that can positively impact large groups of people. When PR and public awareness coincide, a lot can be learned for what tools are utilized to make the world a better place.

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