Changing the conversation about mental health

We’re in the midst of a mental health crisis — one that has reached epidemic proportions. Universities, the place I work, are in many ways ground zero. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 1 in 5 American adults live with a mental illness. That’s 46.6 million people. The situation is particularly acute in younger populations like Gen Z, where rates of anxiety and depression are rising at an alarming rate. The Child Mind Institute reports that “at some point, anxiety affects 30% of children and adolescents, yet 80% never get help.” A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that among adolescents and young adults, the suicide rate has reached its highest level in nearly two decades. 

This is an area where all communications professions can make a big difference. We need to mobilize our collective intelligence, expertise and resources to confront this public health crisis by raising awareness and decreasing the stigma associated with mental health. We can leverage communication strategies to change attitudes, beliefs and practices. We already see Gen Z leading the way. 

At college campuses like USC, student journalists are rethinking how they cover suicides. Recognizing that “reporting on suicide can have the danger of inspiring others,” our students at Annenberg Media cover suicides only in rare instances. Recently, the editorial board of the university’s student newspaper, the Daily Trojan, acknowledged that “with students as our core audience, we must remain sensitive to our readers’ wellness,” changing its policy to limit reporting on student suicides. 

As teachers of journalists, public relations and communications professionals, we are encour-aging our students to create communication campaigns to increase awareness and decrease stigma around mental health. In honor of their daughter, Kaleigh Finnie, a Trojan who passed away after her freshman year, Kaleigh’s parents established an endowment in her name that provides scholarships and awards to Annenberg students who are studying mental health. Thanks to this gift, we’ll be able to support more students in this work. 

We also need a collective communications effort in our larger society, and we’re beginning to see steps in the right direction. A recent report from social analytics firm NewsWhip suggests mental health conversations on social media are increasing, and brands are using social media platforms to address mental health issues. One of the loudest megaphones for destigmatizing this conversation has come from celebrities like Prince Harry, the NBA’s Kevin Love and Selena Gomez, all of whom have spoken about their struggles and encouraged followers to seek help and know they’re not alone. 

Employees are starting to voice their perspectives in public, too. In a tweet that went viral, an employee shared her CEO’s response to her mental health day in which he praised her: “You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work. ”We need to encourage more companies to follow this CEO’s example — not just to add mental health benefits but to contribute to this conversation around their employees’ mental well-being. 

As the tech world grapples with its downsides, more employees there are actively managing their mental health. And in true Silicon Valley style, startups are popping up that offer on-demand therapy with promises of “getting better 10x faster” and “dating” apps designed to match patients and therapists. 

It’s clear from the data that facilitating conversations about mental health can help to reduce the stigma, a positive new trend and potentially a leading indicator of mean- ingful change in how we think about mental wellness. There should be open dialogue about mental health in homes, schools, workplaces and communities. We all need to do what we can to support this conversation, extending its impact and its reach.


To download a full copy of the 2020 Relevance Report, click here.

Willow Bay

Willow Bay was appointed dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and holder of the Walter H. Annenberg Chair in Communication in July 2017.

A veteran broadcast journalist and a leader in digital communication, Bay was...