Fine, Let's Talk: Resetting Language around Mental Health

There needs to be fluency in the subject matter so that the strategy acknowledges that there is a significant difference between mental health and mental illness and so that light sentiments like “it’s ok to not be ok” and/or “you’re not alone” do not go out to an untargeted unsegmented audience

I used to write a lot and then it got stuck. It got a little unstuck in time for Bell Let's Talk Day. I thought I'd share with you:

Today on #BellLetsTalk Day, like all mental health awareness days, people will be told that they’re not alone and that it’s ok not to be ok. While such light messages might be comforting for some, as someone who struggles with severe depressive episodes and as a mother to a child living with mental illness, I see the ubiquity of these messages as ineffective. I am acutely aware of the fact that this stems from a lack of strategic consideration and I also know that that lack of strategic consideration points to enduring stigma. If it’s ok to not be ok, is it ok to be mentally ill? Didn’t think so.

The consequences of this lazy lack of strategic consideration is an increasing societal state of confusion around mental health, mental wellbeing, and mental illness that has far-reaching and disturbing implications.As should be expected with any effective marketing and communications campaign, a strategy for mental health-oriented messaging needs to identify and decipher between targeted audiences, selecting channels and visual elements that resonate. There needs to be fluency in the subject matter so that the strategy acknowledges that there is a significant difference between mental health and mental illness and so that light sentiments like “it’s ok to not be ok” and/or “you’re not alone” do not go out to an untargeted unsegmented audience. Given this buckshot approach to messaging is taken over and over again, I doubt evaluation of marcom strategies, required in any other sector, is happening with regularity in the mental health sector. So, if messaging is being tossed out there without a thoughtful strategy, have we really broken through the stigma that the Bell Let's Talk campaign worked hard to address when their campaign started a decade ago? Let’s think about a creative brief for messaging to address the general increase in reported feelings of mild to moderate anxiety and low mood among young adults (18-34 yrs) a year and a half into a pandemic.

Mental health is a continuum, but let's assume the objective of the campaign is preventative: to let people know that feeling anxious and sad are reasonable and common responses to unprecedented stressors, To remind them that everyone is born with resilience and that this too shall pass (hopefully). In this case, "you're not alone" and "It's ok to not be ok" might be appropriate and resonant messages. Now, let's also assume that within this audience there are people experiencing more intense anxiety and what might constitute clinical depression, so a strong call to action to seek support is needed to ensure that mental health issues do not turn into more serious ill states of mental health. Measuring the performance of the campaign all the way down to actual handoffs to community resources will be important, as well as the types of handoffs, to assess how resonant the messaging has been to the intended audience. Yes, that means that the call to action to seek help also needs to include a path to resources to track. If you want people to monitor their mental health and seek help when needed, the path to support needs to be clear and trackable to return on investment i.e. the cost of the campaign delivers on the intent as evidenced by, let's say, lower reports of increases in mild to moderate mental health issues and handoffs of appropriate audience profiles to resources to which the campaign has driven. Not very non-profitty language but you get the gist.Now, let's consider the differing creative brief for people and caregivers of people living with mental illness. Though many make the mistake of thinking them interchangeable, mental illness is a state of mental health. Just as there is physical health and physical illness, there is mental health and mental illness.

Unfortunately, because mental illness still carries heavy stigma and there are far fewer resources and effective treatments available for active illness versus preventative supports, many in your audience (if they're even being reached by the channels you've chosen for your campaign) ARE alone and for many, it's definitely NOT ok to not be ok. So, this messaging would be wildly inappropriate. And because there are so few resources and such long waitlists, the call to action would need to align with the community's capacity to support. The resources to support mild to moderate mental health issues are often not the same as the ones needed to support mental illness. So, lumping all audiences together under mental health means that target audiences are not being effectively nor respectfully engaged, the calls to action are directing targets to inappropriate resources, and the return-on-investment tanks with potentially dire consequences.

We've seen effective messaging launch movements. What if we put some energy behind the messaging around mental health and mental illness in ways that are informed, thoughtful, and personally resonate rather than missing the mark altogether and, instead, end up inadvertently making the audience feel that much less ok and that much more alone?

Chloe Grande's picture
About the author

Alana Salsberg is a mom of 3 kids and a passionate advocate of mental health system change. Alana's drive is informed by her deep lived experience with mental illness and as a marketing and communications professional who knows the power of effective engagement in propelling change. Alana has worked as a consultant to CMHA National and most recently was the Program Lead for Big White Wall, a 24/7 online peer to peer support service. Out of work hours, Alana goes in search of green space with her 2 badly behaved dogs as much as possible and pokes at her garden hopefully but largely unsuccessfully.