Stop the Stigma

How Effective Are Mental Health Awareness Campaigns?

How effectiveness are awareness campaigns? - graphic of a megaphone

We’re surrounded by awareness campaigns, particularly health awareness campaigns. In the US, the number of designated national health awareness days had reached 200 by 2015 (Purtle & Roman, 2015). In 2017, the Stanford Social Innovation Review published an article titled Stop Raising Awareness Already. Pointing to the great many awareness month designations all for a single month, the authors wrote, “Unsure what to do with all your awareness? You’re not alone.”

In an article in The Atlantic, Julie Beck writes “Days, weeks, months are dedicated to the awareness of different health conditions, often without a clear definition of what ‘awareness’ means, or what, exactly, is supposed to come of it.” Often, it isn’t known what actually comes out of these kind of campaigns, but that hasn’t stopped enthusiastic people from running them.

So is there actually a point to all of these campaigns, and do they work?

Mental health awareness days

When I first started blogging and was more active on social media, I was surprised by all the different awareness days/weeks/months. Initially, I thought they were a good way to get conversations going. Then I started to find that I couldn’t keep up with them all and I was getting tired of them. I figured that can’t be a good sign for people that aren’t into mental health stuff in the first place.

Here are a few of the multitude of mental health awareness campaigns that I’ve come across:

  • Jan: Bell Let’s Talk Day (CA)
  • Feb: Children’s Mental Health Week (UK), Eating Disorders Awareness Week (CA), National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (US)
  • Mar: Self-Injury Awareness Day (and Month), Eating Disorders Awareness Week (UK), World Bipolar Day
  • Apr: PMDD Awareness Month
  • May: Mental Health Month (US), Mental Health Awareness Week, Mental Health Week (CA), Borderline Personality Disorder Awareness Month, World Maternal Mental Health Day, National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day (US), National Child and Youth Mental Health Day (CA), World Schizophrenia Day
  • June: International Fathers’ Mental Health Day, Action Anxiety Day (CA), PTSD Awareness Day (and Month)
  • July: National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month (US), National Schizophrenia Awareness Day (UK)
  • Sept: Suicide Awareness Month, World Suicide Prevention Day, National Suicide Prevention Week (US), National Recovery Month (US), ADHD Awareness Week (US), Youth Mental Health Day (UK)
  • Oct: Mental Illness Awareness Week (US), World Mental Health Day, ADHD Awareness Month, International OCD Awareness Week, National Depression and Mental Health Screening Month (US), National Depression Screening Day (US)

Holy Hannah, that’s a lot going on. Throw in all the awareness dates for every other health issue under the sun and that’s almost a sure recipe for message fatigue. People can only be so aware before they hit a wall.

Does information make a difference?

Awareness is important to generate if there is no baseline awareness, and an issue isn’t on people’s radar at all. After all, people can’t do much about something they don’t know exists. So awareness can be an important first step, but a lot of awareness campaigns are based on things that people are already aware of, at least to some extent. If people are already aware that the health condition exists, is more awareness likely to change much?

In communication theory, the information deficit model was developed in the 1980s. According to this model, if people only had more information, they would accept that knowledge and take action based on that knowledge. However, information alone doesn’t translate very well into behaviour change.

Julie Beck’s article in The Atlantic talked about a sociological theory called narcotizing dysfunction, which says that the more information people get about an issue from the media, the less likely they are to do something about it. People may misinterpret being knowledgeable about a health issue as actually having done something to address it. As the article says, “It’s not enough to just say ‘this is a problem, and we need to do something about it.’ There are a lot of problems in the world that need doing something about.” People need to be given something that they can do, but campaigns that are only about awareness don’t necessarily push people towards meaningful actions.

In the American Journal of Public Health, Purtle and Roman warn, “If left unchecked, health awareness days may do little more than reinforce ideologies of individual responsibility and the false notion that adverse health outcomes are simply the product of misinformed behaviors.”

The limitations of awareness campaigns

Some campaigns may get a lot of attention, which may be interpreted as a sign that they’re accomplishing something, yet what people are interested in is the creative messaging, and they’re not doing anything to do with the purpose of the campaign. Evaluation of awareness campaigns is often based on reach, but you could reach everyone and the world and it wouldn’t do much good if nothing changed based on the message.

Sometimes, awareness campaigns have little, if anything, to do with their associated cause. In 2014, Time reported on Cancer Research UK’s #nomakeupselfie campaign. It got popular, but not because it got anyone thinking about cancer; people just liked the concept of a no-makeup selfie.

The term slacktivism (also known as clicktivism) is sometimes used to describe making small gestures that make a public show of support but don’t actually do much of anything or change much. For example, on Bell Let’s Talk Day, it’s easy for someone to tweet using the hashtag, feel good about themselves for 10 seconds, and then not think about mental health again until the next mass shooting gets blamed on a mentally ill person.

Sometimes, awareness campaigns are primarily reaching people who are already on board, which probably doesn’t accomplish much. Another issue is that sometimes the messaging may sacrifice accuracy for simplification and catchiness. Depending on who’s behind the campaign, it may generate resistance, especially if the source is perceived to be biased.

Effective awareness campaigns

Awareness campaigns can be useful, such as if they get an unknown issue on to the radar. Also, if they get people to show support for controversial or taboo issues, that can provide social proof that may help people who’ve kept their views to themselves feel more confident being open. If campaigns can get people talking about difficult subjects that tend to be kept hidden in silence, that can contribute to social change. But awareness is a means, not an end.

When it comes to health conditions, awareness can be a step towards promoting action. If you want to talk to people about the importance of protected sex to prevent the transmission of HIV or syphilis, first those diseases need to be on people’s radar. Awareness campaigns get them there, and then safer sex campaigns turn that awareness into action. If the goal is to increase cancer screening, making people aware of screening recommendations is a place to start.

According to the article Stop Raising Awareness Already, narrowly targeting an audience is an important part of creating effective awareness campaigns. Campaigns should focus on people whose behaviour change would contribute the most to whatever the goal is, and there should be clear calls to action. Whoever is delivering the message should be selected based on who will be most credible to the specific target audience, which may not be who is most appealing to the person sending the message. For example, asking Dr. Fauci to raise awareness among anti-vaxxers is picking the wrong person for the target audience, even though he may be the best person from the point of view of people wanting to send the message.

A Washington Post article noted research showing that when campaigns emphasize the values underlying their cause, that can lead to action through values alignment, as people like to act in ways that are consistent with their own values.

What can we do with this?

Sometimes, there simply isn’t a lot that we can do about an issue. However, I think there is value in having some knowledge about what people are facing so that if at some point we do encounter someone who is facing that issue, we’ve got some background. Reading about different topics is a good thing, but reading/writing for the sake of sharing knowledge and running a mass awareness campaign aren’t the same thing, and they probably don’t have the same purposes.

In terms of mental health advocacy, I’m unconvinced that all the awareness-raising is the best use of all the money being poured into it. If campaigns actually get people talking about mental health, that’s a good thing, but if they only get people retweeting or using a hashtag, that campaign money could probably be better spent. Given all the competition for the public’s awareness, I suspect less is probably more.

What are your thoughts on the usefulness of mental health awareness campaigns, or awareness campaigns in general?

Now available: A Brief History of Stigma

This is part of a series of posts on topics that are addressed in my new book, A Brief History of Stigma.

You can find it on Amazon and Google Play.

31 thoughts on “How Effective Are Mental Health Awareness Campaigns?”

  1. Shew, a lot indeed!! I agree awareness with provided information is beneficial, however, I am against recognizing a disorder based on tragedy. Actors and actresses who run campaigns as a form of marketing make me nauseous.

    1. With famous people like actors and actresses, to me, it feels the most meaningful if they’re willing to open up about the messy and uncomfortable stuff. If they’re doing it for marketing to make themselves look better, that’s not helping anything.

  2. There were multiple reasons why I chose to post my series on my friend’s suicide in September; the one reason I can share publicly is that September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. I tagged all six posts with “Suicide Prevention Awareness Month” and I even put a PSA in the body of one of the posts in the series (https://jewishyoungprofessional.wordpress.com/2021/09/30/it-took-me-over-two-years-to-write-this-post-part-4-the-aftermath/) but afterwards, I wondered what exactly I was accomplishing by tagging to an awareness campaign. I didn’t have any great tips, resources, or advice for someone struggling with suicidal ideation. I don’t think that a sincere and overly-long reflection written two years after the event for my friend who committed suicide is going to convince someone suicidal not to do it, nor de-stigmatize the issue. And “my story” is a reflection, not a sob story, you know? I was her friend, not her daughter, and while I had six posts worth of feelings, it’s not as if the practical logistics of my life changed the way they might have if I’d been a close relative or something. (Honestly, even writing “my story” feels oddly disingenuous).
    I considered adding another PSA about Suicide Awareness Month on the last post in the series, but I had no idea what action item I was encouraging people to do. I had no idea if or how I could have done anything to prevent my friend’s suicide either – how could I tell someone else to take action out of awareness?
    I’ve chosen to leave the awareness month tags and PSA note in Part 4, but I definitely still question the why.

    1. I think there is value in being able to talk openly about difficult subjects. Particularly with something like suicide, there’s so much taboo. Perhaps the sharing of personal stories, whether the involvement with suicide are direct or indirect, can help to gradually reduce the taboo.

      I think that kind of storytelling accomplishes more in terms of challenging taboos than generic posts about suicide being an important issue that people should talk about, so it’s probably more important to tag stories to awareness campaigns.

  3. These are good points. It makes sense that awareness campaigns will be more effective with a target audience and specific call to action. You’re right, and it’s interesting how many campaigns don’t have a call to real action. Really interesting.

    1. For sure. I think it’s easy for advocacy campaigns to focus on what’s appealing to people who are already on board with wanting to reduce mental illness stigma, but to properly evaluate effectiveness, the messaging needs to work for people who aren’t already onside.

  4. My personal reaction is usually – go away and leave me alone, get off my screen and out of my feed. Awareness campaigns have probably been useful and helpful. Right now The Washington Post is running articles about suicide in the active military… makes me sad and angryl But there’s nothing I can do about it and I doubt any of these campaigns are going to have any affect on military culture.

    1. Yeah, if the military isn’t creating a culture where people are willing to come forward, and if people who come forward aren’t then able to get effective treatment, all the awareness campaigning in the world is going to do sweet bugger all.

  5. It reminds me a bit of a meme I saw years ago parodying World War I recruitment posters:
    “What did you do during the war, Daddy?”
    “I tweeted with a hashtag and sent my thoughts and prayers!”

  6. “Holy Hannah, that’s a lot going on” 😂 It sure is! It’s amazing that you can joke about their being a day for everything, but there really does seem to be.

    I’ve also found myself unable to keep up with them, even when looking at ones in a certain niche like mental health. That said, I’m a fan of the more robust days/months/years, the ones that do garner more attention so that more people get involved. I think awareness days can help, even if not always in the way intended. For instance, an awareness day for mental health could bring together those with a mental health condition, helping them feel less alone. It could make those feeling powerless feel more empowered by writing blog articles or posting on social media, giving them a voice and an outlet.

    There is the risk of too much information and then people simply getting fed up with it all. I think that can happen with most things. Like if you love pizza, but you eat it every for lunch and dinner every day for a few months and suddenly it’s just too much, you can’t face eating pizza again.

    I hadn’t really considered the money behind different awareness days. Some of them seem so fluffy that I assumed they were just about Tweeting and some colourful Canva mock-ups. If money is being pumped in, then no, probably not the best use for it.

    As for the public show of support that’s otherwise ineffective… sadly yes, I do this “slacktivism” is an issue. The thing is, I often think that about awareness days or other fundraising/awareness initiatives. It won’t do much good, it won’t instigate “real” change where we need it, like from our governments or legal amendments or within our mental health services. But if we think like that, we give up on the smaller gestures and we’re stuck at being able to do nothing, feeling more helpless. At least it’s something, even if that something is primarily for those doing it and living with whatever the awareness day is in aid of. Maybe these awareness schemes to contribute to change on a wider scale, it’s just so incremental that it’s almost imperceptible. A tiny shift that adds up in shaping the tidal wave of social consciousness. Hopefully.

    Brilliant analysis of this issue, Ashley.
    xx

    1. I agree that awareness days can be useful for bringing communities together, and I think those can probably be done on a low budget based on existing social networks, whereas if the aim is public awareness, that requires more money for advertising and creating pre-made graphics people can share and all of that.

      I think that slacktivism is still worth something when there truly is nothing that the average person can do. That’s probably also the kind of thing that can benefit from spontaneous sharing within people’s existing networks rather than putting money into campaigns that could be funnelled instead into something that would be more likely to yield concrete results.

  7. I stopped keeping up with the MH awareness months/days. Too overwhelming. And TBH, raising awareness is a part of my everyday life.

  8. It feels a little like being bombarded to donate to 60 causes simultaneously. Especially during the holidays.

    Honestly, I used to feel guilty to skip over all the commercials, ads, social media threads etc but no more. I have my few causes that affect me or someone I know personally and do my part in educating those who want to know, but to just blindly participate or dump money into random pots where it is likely going to get mismanaged or increase my junkmail, nope. Not doing that anymore.

    I remember a friend once did a thing for Bell talks on Facebook. He said he’s available to anyone who needs to talk anytime. I found this to be untrue, having reached out to him twice in recent years to pick his brain about an issue I was struggling with… It makes me look the other way now when I see what may appear to be well-meaning attempts at support but feel more like fluff in reality.

  9. I find that most of these awareness campaigns do not capture my attention. They seem to go right over my head.
    When Bell has its “Let’s Talk” day I like to take time to listen to some of those who are speaking in interviews.
    I agree that there are way too many campaigns to keep track of!

  10. I don’t think they’re effective, quite honestly. I think it hits home when you meet someone who is personally affected by someone or read/watch the story of a particular individual. Humanizing and personalizing is what makes it real to people, I think. Generic informational write-ups don’t do much.

  11. “Awareness” is hilarious to me; like anyone on earth isn’t aware of cancer. There’re different types of it though. It can be targeted to motivate people to take action, as noted, but generally I feel it’s a way for invertebrates to pretend they’re doing something “big”. Even awareness campaigns accomplish little, as charities are little more than Ponzi schemes.

  12. In roughly 2018 they began a “Suicide Awareness” campaign up here. They host a ‘walk’ (charity marathon run), and put up flags and do a bunch. I’m not personally aware of any real huge changes though. But then, to my knowledge and with COVID rendering most social contact for me moot, I wouldn’t know. If it helps just one person from doing that, then it’s more than worth it.

  13. Wow, phenomenal post! As an autistic adult and advocate, I find this information especially compelling, and it definitely gives me ideas about how to create more effective advocacy content. Thank you for posting!! 💜🙏

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