How Effective Are Mental Health Awareness Campaigns?

How effective are awareness campaigns? - illustration 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 kinds 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. However, people may be attracted by the creative messaging and not paying attention to 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 onto 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; however, 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?

Book cover: A Brief History of Stigma by Ashley L. Peterson

My latest book, A Brief History of Stigma, looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.

You can find it on Amazon and Google Play.

There’s more on stigma on Mental Health @ Home’s Stop the Stigma page.

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

  1. Not delivering on a promise, counters his own initiative. And undermines his awareness campaign. However, a simple gesture of acknowledge, would of went far. Especially, with a person suffering from mental health concerns.

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