Talking Mental Health Can Feel Awkward — But It's An Opportunity We Have to Seize

It’s been a landmark few years for mental health visibility and awareness — conveniently just as mental health for so many people amid a global pandemic has been at an all-time-low. That said, when it comes to bridging the gap between awareness and access to resources, we still have a ways to go. Mental health is still a younger science and we’re still learning how our minds, bodies, nervous systems, histories and environments contribute to each person’s unique experience — but that also means that a lot of folks still think that mental healthcare — or needing help in general — isn’t for them.

That’s an issue that the Ad Council’s Seize the Awkward campaign, first launched in 2017, hoped to tackle with their latest PSA — calling attention to the folks who might be struggling but might be unwilling or unable to acknowledge their struggles or seek help until they’re already in a crisis. But getting that message out in a way that might actually resonate and stick with people before things become that painful or dangerous — and reach both those struggling and those who love them and want to be part of their support system? That’s a unique challenge.

“Mental health is a really broad topic, right? In this case, we drilled down to focus on the young adult population,” as Margaret Files Vice President, Marketing and Communications at Ad Council shared during her talk at SXSW. “We first launched this campaign in 2017 and mental health among young people was already emerging as an issue then… And, as we’re all aware, in the wake of the pandemic, the mental health crisis is only kind of deepening and broadening across our country.”

We’re not all marketers, obviously, but Files’ insights in how the marketing strategy worked for this PSA is something that us — regular people who care about mental health and the chance to support our communities and loved ones — can really learn from.

“We all know in the world of communications, it’s really hard to reach someone with a communication campaign when they’re already in crisis, or when they’re at risk of crisis. So the Aha! moment for us was ‘let’s activate that network of peers.’”

“We all know in the world of communications, it’s really hard to reach someone with a communication campaign when they’re already in crisis, or when they’re at risk of crisis,” Files said. “So the Aha! moment for us was ‘let’s activate that network of peers.’”

And that’s where the campaign really shines in showing what this kind of support system can really look like. When the not-currently-struggling, support system folks are targeted and are able to see examples of how person living with mental illness can have their feelings dismissed or overlooked but then also see models for how to break through the discomfort to really check in and show up for them when they’re going through it, they’re able to not only offer that support, but also prime themselves to imagine receiving that support in the event they are ever in a similar situation. It’s a sneaky and cool way to get a lot of folks on-board and primed to do the most good — and an impressive and well-informed call-to-action.

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And nestled a little deeper in that call is a really thoughtful meta-emotional conversation (i.e. when we talk about how we feel about feelings) that acknowledges what so many of us are thinking: This stuff is so stigmatized and we’ve all been told for generations to quiet down, suck it up and just cope (for marginalized folks at various intersections, especially!) that it can be really, really awkward and uncomfortable to be the first to break that silence.

“We know this isn’t something that we all feel okay talking about. We’ve all been conditioned to not talk about mental health. But when we pair it with ‘Seize the Awkward,’ then we’re letting people know there’s this urgency here,” Files says. “There’s this ‘carpe diem’ moment. So let’s encourage everyone push past that awkwardness and be there for that friend and reach out before they’re the one reaching out to you because they’re in crisis.”

And in seizing that moment and letting ourselves stay in that temporary (it’s always temporary) discomfort, those cycles of silence can actually be broken. We can become the kind of people who can be a safe space for the emotions of others, even when it’s scary or uncomfortable. We can even save lives by combating the many dangerous lies depression tends to tell people.

There’s a suggestion a lot of therapists will make when you’re on your mental health journey: “learn to sit with the discomfort.” It’s reminds me of story from Buddhist teachings about what to do when upsetting, dark or fraught emotions come through — like when the Buddha encountered the demon god Mara. The answer isn’t to send them away, to ignore them or even to immediately fix them: Sometimes the answer is inviting them to tea, treating them as an “honored guest.”

I think of this story a lot as someone who writes and reads about mental health in 2023 because so much of our current culture doesn’t really leave space (physical, temporal or emotional) to do that (opting for quick-fixes that often leave much to be desired) — and we might be worse off for it. But campaigns like this one remind us that there’s a benefit to getting to know the uneasiness in our own emotions and those of the people we love. If we normalize letting ourselves be in those emotional places, to let ourselves name them and talk about them and call for support, we have a better chance of triumphing over them again and again.

Before you go, check out the apps we swear by for a little extra mental health TLC:

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