The campaign sought to shorten that gap; equip friends, family, and loved ones to check in with one another; promote equity and inclusion; encourage individuals to get help sooner; and normalize conversations about mental health—building a movement of people who reach out to loved ones.
There is a lot we didn’t get to do in the pandemic. But, it was possible to use communications skills to make small changes for the greater good. On behalf of the Horizon Foundation—the community health foundation of Howard County, Maryland, PRR inspired people to become more compassionate and supportive of friends and loved ones who are experiencing mental health challenges.
And, you can too – whether you work directly in mental health communications or just want to encourage a little empathy and social connection in your campaigns.
Mental health needs rose dramatically during the pandemic. Words of support can be powerful to someone struggling. But – no surprise here – a lot of people avoid talking about mental health. Horizon Foundation surveyed their community in Howard County to explore this hesitancy and learned that many people do want to reach out and provide support. However, they sought practical tips, conversation starters, and types of questions to ask. This group was primed to move – they just needed a guide.
Enter the Horizon Foundation’s Emotional Support Human campaign (supporthuman.org). While many mental health campaigns focused on supporting someone in crisis, this campaign looked further upstream. Research shows, on average, a 10-year gap between the onset of mental health symptoms and when individuals usually receive treatment. The campaign sought to shorten that gap; equip friends, family, and loved ones to check in with one another; promote equity and inclusion; encourage individuals to get help sooner; and normalize conversations about mental health—building a movement of people who reach out to loved ones.
PRR, a fully integrated social marketing and community engagement firm, began working with the Horizon Foundation in January 2020. PRR focused on an engaging website and video series featuring diverse emotional support humans, which became central to the work. On a philosophical level, PRR approached the work by employing a behavior change continuum, using research to understand where residents were at and not rushing them through awareness and trial to get to habit formation
For example, PRR initiated communications at the awareness stage by highlighting the message that checking in doesn’t need to be overly complicated: Simply asking “are you okay?” is in fact okay, if you really listen to the response. PRR also encouraged bite-sized initial conversations, to make the trial of a new behavior feel approachable. These were key activities in summer and fall 2020.
In comparison, the 2021 campaign moved deeper into the territory of asking participants to repeat these empathetic behaviors and worked towards building a movement in Howard County to support a social norm of talking about mental health. This was an evidence-based decision after evaluating 2020 campaign data.
Research also helped refine campaign tone. Some mental health campaigns have used humor to cue a sense of informality and approachability—because formality can uphold the stigma of mental health rather than getting people talking about it. Formality can suggest that only mental health professionals can and should talk about mental health (untrue!). However, people going through a mental health challenge - and their loved ones - can feel that humor trivializes the severity of their experiences or demeans them as people. This feedback helped PRR achieve an approachable, informal tone that elevates mental health while still resonating with our audience.
Finally, research indicated the breadth of diversity that the audience wanted to see in campaign assets—race and ethnicity, gender, and age, but also depictions of a variety of body shapes and sizes, religious expression, gender expression, and abilities. Because campaign creation took place three months into the pandemic, when live-action video production came to a standstill, the campaign relied on animation. PRR developed creative that captured attention.
The campaign also included outreach to community-based organizations in Howard County. Throughout the pandemic, the outreach team offered periodic support and resources, including social media toolkits, and checked in to gauge how these organizations and their community members were interacting with the materials.
Evaluation research from the 2020 campaign showed that the creative materials provided residents with the tools they needed to become emotional support humans. As a result of the campaign, 68% said they felt comfortable talking about mental health with friends and family, and 77% were interested in being an emotional support human to friends and family.
Learning from this research, Horizon Foundation proceeded to work with PRR on year three of the campaign. and debuted new creative in October to December 2021. The new creative aspires to connect emotional support humans to each other so they feel not only equipped in relationships with the person they are helping, but also part of a larger movement of empathy and advocacy in 2022.
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