Silver Anvil Nominee: A 'Promise to Talk' About Mental Health

November 2, 2018

[westbound communications]
[westbound communications]

One in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness, conditions that range from mild to moderate or severe. But according to the National Institute of Mental Health, only half of those people receive treatment. Shame and embarrassment often prevent people from seeking the help that they need. Can the stigma of mental illness be overcome?

In 2016, Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, Calif., hired nearby Westbound Communications to develop a campaign aimed at alleviating the stigma of mental illness, particularly among bilingual residents of Orange County.

In an effort to change perceptions about mental health, the team developed an outreach program called “Promise to Talk,” which sought to secure signed, documented assurances that people would discuss mental health with a neighbor, friend or family member. PRSA named the ensuing campaign as a finalist for the Best of Silver Anvil this year.

The idea was that talking openly about mental illness would dispel the shame that surrounds it and help to build a supportive community for mental wellness. Westbound also created a “lime-green bench,” a physical structure that provided an appealing visual image of a safe, comfortable place to sit and have a conversation in a park, mall or bus shelter.

As a first step, Westbound researched ways that other organizations had tried to destigmatize mental illness, to see which approaches had worked and why. In auditing more than 35 previous campaigns and reviewing 60-plus reports assessing their effectiveness, Westbound discovered that the majority of those efforts had focused on measuring outputs — numbers of events held, posters printed and distributed, etc. — rather than outcomes, such as the number of people encountered or measurable changes in their perceptions and behaviors.

The communications team realized that it would have to create its own customized measurements for the “Promise to Talk” campaign. So they developed and conducted a survey for local communities that would establish benchmarks for how people perceive mental health and assess whether those residents were willing to discuss the subject.

Through dogged, one-on-one neighborhood outreach, combined with social media, outdoor advertising and public service announcements, the team surpassed its goal of documenting 1,000 promises to talk from local community members during the campaign’s first year. Eighty-seven percent of the people Westbound spoke with agreed that discussing mental health is a good idea.

But upon closer review, the communications team saw that fewer than half of those residents felt strongly that others in their communities were generally sympathetic to the struggles of mentally ill people. In other words, while they had compassion for the plight themselves, many residents felt that their family, friends and neighbors did not. The team decided the campaign’s second year would emphasize the idea that talking about mental health also requires the willingness to listen with an open, honest heart.

Unexpected challenges

Westbound faced a dilemma. They had to stress the importance of listening without contradicting the campaign’s primary message of promising to talk. The team worked to incorporate new visuals and messages that would underscore the importance of active listening in conversations.

They hit upon the idea to create accessories for the lime-green bench, including branded pillows and a mat bearing the secondary messages “Listen” or “Let’s Listen.” The team had photographs taken showing people holding up signs with the new messages and then wove those images into the “Promise to Talk” public service announcement video, and into its website, social media channels and other materials.

With a budget of $300,000, Westbound undertook the second year of the campaign, targeting bilingual communities in the Orange County towns of Laguna Beach, Lake Forest, Mission Viejo, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano. But the communications team was blindsided to learn that five of the six large community events they had attended the year before — and where they had succeeded in gathering promises to talk — would not be held in the second year of the campaign, for various reasons.

As a workaround, they created a new series of in-field outreach involving eight dedicated visits from their team into targeted neighborhoods. The team walked around with a wagon, offering free water and striking up conversations with people they met. The team wound up securing hundreds of promises to talk about mental health, effectively replacing those they would have secured at the large events. They also gave away stress balls, wristbands and mood magnets promoting “Promise to Talk.”

Shoe leather and social media

To spread the word further, the Westbound staff employed a variety of methods that relied heavily on face-to-face human contact but also included digital media. In May, nationally recognized as Mental Health Matters Month, the team took part in more than a dozen community events and also conducted 20-plus “pop-ups” in which they interacted with residents in their own neighborhoods.

At every event, the communications team set up their booth and lime-green bench. They also toured the bench to more than a dozen area schools, community centers and libraries, and encouraged people in those locations to sign promises that they would talk about mental health.

With most major media in Southern California based out of Los Angeles rather than Orange County, the team had to find local, and often low-tech, alternative means of communicating their message. To introduce the listening idea, they placed ads on the outsides and interiors of buses, and on bus-stop shelters along specific routes. The tactic helped build awareness and buzz for the campaign.

Westbound’s team also went door-to-door, dropping off materials with tips on how to start conversations on the sensitive topic of mental health. All together they developed more than a dozen materials — including fact sheets, Q&A’s, testimonials and a “Promise Board” that could be covered with sticky notes at community events.

With a limited budget for producing videos, they invited people from the community to participate in a series of PSAs on how to facilitate caring conversations about mental illness. The team produced two 30-second videos, one in English and one in Spanish, which aired on local public-access stations in all five markets.

Expectations surpassed

In 2017, its second year, the “Promise to Talk” campaign exceeded many of its own goals. It had aimed to secure 1,200 promises and got 1,700 instead. The program met its expectation that 60 percent of its primary audiences would strongly agree that community residents are generally caring and sympathetic to people with mental illness.

Surpassing targets of 80 percent for each goal, 94 percent of survey respondents said they would talk about mental health with a neighbor, friend or family member; 97 percent agreed that treatment can help people with mental illness live normal lives; and 98 percent said mental health conditions are illnesses, not weaknesses, and that open conversations about the subject are healthy for everyone to have. 

Greg Beaubien

Greg Beaubien is a frequent contributor to PRSA’s publications.


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