Changing the Conversation on Mental Health: Seizing the Awkward

During this year’s PRSSA Leadership Assembly in Scottsdale, Ariz., attendees participated in the Leadership Training Session, “Changing the Conversation Around Mental Health.” It was conducted by Doreen Marshall, Ph.D., vice president of mission engagement of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).  

This was an excellent opportunity to raise awareness on such an important topic as mental health. Dr. Marshall shared the importance of downstream work which focuses on helping not only those struggling with mental health, but also their families. Downstream work is one of the key elements of AFSP’s work.  

The current situation in the U.S. is concerning. According to the AFSP suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among 15–24-year-olds. Additionally, 1 in 4 young adults experience a mental health challenge each year and 2.6 million college students have serious thoughts about suicide.

It is important to consider that the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the scenario An outstanding 80% of college students reported that it negatively affected their mental health and 63% of 18–24-year-olds reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in the past 2 years.

With that in mind, AFSP partnered with other organizations such as The Jed Foundation and The Ad Council to launch “Seize the Awkward,” a project that seeks to encourage young adults to reach out to friends they suspect may be struggling with mental health issues and start a conversation with them, even if it may feel uncomfortable at first.

The initiative’s name perfectly portrays its core: giving young people permission to start conversations about mental health, inspiring them to reach out to their friends and showing them how to do it by acknowledging that it can feel awkward to start the conversation.

Dr. Marshall shared with Chapter leaders the priorities and tactics that “Seize the Awkward” had for 2022. These included partnering with TikTok, Meta, Reddit and Pinterest to develop custom content supported by significant donated media as well as leaning into moments such as the Minority Mental Health Awareness month to reach people of color and LGBTQIA+ audiences. Those expectations were not only met, but surpassed! According to the information shared during the Assembly, the project’s press release was shared by 311 outlets for a total potential audience of 199 million people. “Seize the Awkward” was integrated into community events with experts highlighting the importance of reaching out and having conversations about mental health among young adults. 

The impact of this initiative was massive. It obtained over $87 million of total donated media support, reached 5 billion total impressions and 70% of those aware of the PSA “We Can Talk About It” talked to a friend that was struggling.

As Public Relations students and professionals, we have the responsibility to communicate about mental health — which is as important as physical health — and that’s something we should keep in mind from now on. 

Without a doubt, Dr. Marshall’s Leadership Training Session changed the conversation around mental health. We can now understand that we all need to get involved and advocate for suicide prevention; reaching out to someone if we believe they may be struggling is key. Seventy-six percent of young adults will turn to a peer in times of a crisis, so remember to always “seize the awkward” and start the conversation. When the world doesn’t listen, be the friend who does.

Teo Ignacio Landoni is a sophomore studying public relations and institutional communication at Universidad Argentina de la Empresa (UADE). He currently serves as the secretary of communication at PRO Diversidad Provincia de Buenos Aires, a political space that works towards the inclusion of diversity in the public agenda, and as PRSSA National vice president of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging during the 2023-2024 term. To continue the conversation with Teo, feel free to connect with him online.

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