As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to create unprecedented challenges to American life, the conversation around mental health has finally broken into the mainstream. To discuss what's changed and how to authentically reach specific communities to provide them the tools they need, Lisa Sherman, president and CEO of the Ad Council, spoke with partners on several recent mental health efforts. They include Gabrielle Shirdan, senior VP and group creative director at McCann; Alvin Bowles, VP of business engineering and partner solutions at Facebook; and John MacPhee, president and CEO of the JED Foundation.
Lisa Sherman: I’d like to start with a question for all of you. How has the pandemic influenced or altered your thinking about the conversations we need to be having about mental health? Gabrielle, let's start with you.
Gabrielle Shirdan: Mental health has never been more top mind in culture, and many of us are isolated and forced to face our own minds. The time we're in has made the conversation more necessary than ever. There is also the reckoning around the pandemic of racism, which weighs on the minds and bodies of people of color, making mental health even more of a crisis.
Sherman: Alvin, what are your thoughts?
Alvin Bowles: The global pandemic has shown us that everyone needs human interaction and that we all must prioritize getting a checkup from the neck up. Moreover, we're all in need of tools and resources to explore best practices for ourselves, loved ones and professional teams. Our intentionality for wellness needs a specific target to be effective and that is best determined by silencing the shame of mental health conversations to arrive in a better place.
Sherman: How about you, John? Mental health is obviously centered in your work at the JED Foundation, so I’m curious to hear your thoughts.
John MacPhee: The pandemic impacted every corner of society, but among the most affected have been students, particularly college students. The annual Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement found that 53% of first-year students reported a substantial increase in mental and emotional exhaustion.
The pandemic also brought mainstream awareness to mental health. People are no longer asking, “What is mental health?” They're now asking, “How can we achieve mental health?” So while we are in a place where young people are struggling more than ever, there's also more opportunity than ever to find solutions.
Sherman: I love that. So let’s talk about solutions. Gabrielle, the Sound It Out campaign paired struggling kids with musicians who could turn their feelings into songs. What were the considerations when trying to reach specific communities with this effort in an authentic, relevant way?
Shirdan: Sound It Out tells the stories that haven't been told. With a focus on mental health in Black and Latinx communities specifically, we crafted the campaign with respect and care for their cultures. Staying mindful, we didn't lean into a struggle story, but shed light on the full diaspora and range of emotions.
The kids were the real creatives here—their feelings wrote this work, and the conversations were all theirs. To authentically reach this community—my community—we intentionally curated a crew behind the work just as diverse as those in it, with Black and Latinx creatives behind the lens, from our director to our DP, our editor, the style team and the mix engineer. We were careful to ensure this work was real from the inside out.
Sherman: Alvin, how can social media be a force for good on mental health? Could you talk a bit about the strategy that has informed your work with us over the years?
Bowles: Facebook has been working for years to develop better tools and resources and forge partnerships with groups like the Ad Council to make it easier for people to protect and improve their mental health. For example, we've partnered with mental health experts to create an Emotional Health resource center on Facebook to connect people to resources to manage their well-being. We also recently launched a new company campaign called “It's Been A Year” to raise the voices of people triumphing over pandemic struggles.
And of course, we've worked on several different campaigns over the years with the Ad Council, including “I Am a Witness” and "Seize the Awkward," to educate people on various mental health priorities, to prevent bullying and suicide, and to create a groundswell for this fundamental idea that mental health is essential and that there is so much support for people who want or need help to safeguard their own mental health.
Sherman: John, from your perspective, what are your considerations when trying to reach specific communities in an authentic, effective way, and what should we keep in mind when speaking about young people specifically?
MacPhee: We have to begin by listening deeply. What are the community's struggles and pain points? What values live within a community? What unique strengths does the community have that can be leveraged? These are questions best answered by members within a community through formal assessment or open dialogue—not by assumption.
When speaking about young people, recognize and highlight their resilience and ingenuity. This generation is very different—young people are ready, willing and able to address emotional health and well-being. But authenticity is key. Young people don't want to see performative allyship from organizations. They want to see real impactful actions being taken to support the bold claims they are making.
And representation in all forms is crucial. Young people are acutely aware of how their own identities match up—or don't—with the people they see in the media that surrounds them, and they need to feel seen first before they can be supported.
Sherman: That really rings true to me. I haven’t heard the idea expressed quite that way. Thank you all for the conversation. Let’s keep taking care of ourselves and each other.
This article was originally posted on Ad Age.