PR can reduce the stigma around mental health issues

Katrina Gay, national director, communications and public affairs, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) discusses how change has come to how people talk about mental health and PR pros shouldn't be left behind.

PR can reduce the stigma around mental health issues

Change has come to how people talk about mental health. PR pros shouldn’t be left behind.

Stigma has long surrounded mental health. It discourages people from seeking help and, when internalized, often harms recovery. PR campaigns must be careful when choosing language and images to avoid contributing to damaging attitudes that inspire prejudice and harm.

Fundamental is the person-first principle. No one should be defined by his or her condition. Instead of "She is mentally ill," the proper form is "She has a mental health condition." Similarly, a person isn’t "a schizophrenic." Instead, he "has schizophrenia."

One of the greatest myths about mental health is risk of violence. The contribution to violence in society is relatively very low. Unfortunately, language and images often reinforce stereotypes. Words such as "crazy" have loaded impacts, and symbols such as straitjackets reinforce associations with violence.  

Images of pain, despair, and isolation also project negative messages. Mental health conditions are not to be trivialized - they can be life threatening - but they are manageable. The trend is to emphasize messages of hope, support, and recovery.

Individuals and families affected by mental health conditions started building toward greater public awareness through people stepping forward and talking candidly about their experiences. Celebrities were among the pioneers, but the faces and stories of ordinary people are also effective in changing impressions. Demographically, young people in high schools and colleges are engaging in more open mental health discussions.

Industries and businesses have an important role to play. NAMI’s current Stigmafree campaign includes partnerships with EY, Fox Sports, Participant Media, Coty, and others. The campaign has three principles: learn about mental health, see the person not the illness, and take action.

Actions include inspiring a stigma-free culture as a priority in the workplace and embracing corporate social responsibility for the cause. Besides the social impact, the goal makes economic sense. Depression is the leading cause of disability in the workplace; it lowers productivity by an estimated $12,000 per affected employee each year - with 2.5 days of absences per month. For anxiety disorders, the loss is 4.6 days a month.

Partnerships between NAMI and others in the mental health community, businesses, and PR pros provide synergy and expertise that can benefit everyone. Consultation and collaboration are keys to successful messaging and campaigns and, in turn, broadening this vital movement.


Katrina Gay is national director, communications and public affairs, at National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

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