Srikant RamaswamiSrikant Ramaswami

All too often, people with mental illness are made to feel different. They are ridiculed, bullied, even ignored. Indeed, there’s a stigma attached to people struggling with mental illness who may often feel ashamed of something that’s out of their control. Worst of all, this stigma often prevents people from seeking the help they need.

The role of communicators can be pivotal in addressing the stigma associated with mental illness. Below are six ways in which we, as communications professionals, can make a change.

Careful use of language. When writing about mental health issues, pitching media, launching disease awareness campaigns or furthering patient advocacy, it’s important to choose the right words and images that illustrate what it’s like to live with a mental illness. The way people with mental illnesses are addressed goes a long way toward removing labels that are often put on them. They are not “crazy” or “schizophrenic” or “possessed.” Rather, they are very much like you and me, with many of the same aspirations and dreams.

O'Dwyer's Oct. '18 Healthcare & Medical PR MagazineO'Dwyer's Oct. '18 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine

Supporting mental health education in schools. As state governments incorporate mental health education into school curriculum, communicators can piggy-back off these efforts by working with their clients to support CSR campaigns that raise awareness around mental health issues. On July 1, a new law took effect in New York, adding a paragraph to the state’s Education Law mandating mental health as part of health education in schools. Decreasing stigma, changing attitudes and giving students practical knowledge they can use when it comes to mental health problems they or others face is precisely why New York passed this legislation. Communicators can highlight the New York example and partner with companies to highlight this important work.

Investing in mental wellness in the workplace. Corporations could benefit greatly by talking more about mental health and offering ways for employees to meditate, do yoga, or help them to absorb and manage stress. The way corporate communications departments work with senior leaders to integrate these activities with employees is important and can have great benefits on a healthy workforce that’s mentally and physically energized to do their best work. Corporate communicators can help craft strong messages that convey the importance of physical and mental wellness for holistic well-being.

Changing public policy through public messaging. According to a recent article in Psychiatric News, public messaging can be effective at changing behavior, decreasing stigma and increasing public support for access to and treatment for mental illness and substance use disorders. The article quotes Emma McGinty, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who said that “with some notable exceptions, it’s an area that has not gotten a lot of ­attention.”

In a paper posted online October 2, 2017, in Psychiatric Services, Psychiatry News reported that McGinty and her colleagues assessed what’s currently known about how communication strategies influence public support for mental illness and substance use disorder policies. In addition to calling for more research about what works and what doesn’t, the panel of 45 experts formulated recommendations around five communication strategies, with an emphasis on two that are particularly effective: personal narratives describing struggles with mental illness or substance use disorders and illustrations of the barriers people face in getting treatment.

The primary hypothesis put forward was that people are more likely to read or listen to a story that tells a personal narrative than one that’s heavy on facts.

Mental illness is real, and we must keep talking about it. More and more, celebrities are coming forward to highlight their personal struggles with anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and other mental illnesses. In certain parts of the world, movies are also tackling these taboo subjects and bringing the conversation to the mainstream. Communicators can underscore these celebrity testimonials to let individuals, families and caregivers know they’re not alone, and that mental illness affects everyone.

Cultural communication is essential. When communicators work to destigmatize mental illness, they must consider cultural sensitivities that play a big role in suppressing conversations around this topic. In China, for example, where mental illness isn’t openly discussed, I led an internal PR campaign encouraging leaders to speak out about loved ones who were struggling with mental illness. This went viral and many employees who didn’t want to speak about it mustered the courage to tell their stories in light of the example that was set by leadership.


Srikant Ramaswami is EVP, Global and Emerging Markets, Healthcare, rbb Communications.