COVID Impact: Mental Health Communications.
COVID-19 has altered the fabric of our day-to-day lives with self- or government-imposed isolation, mass layoffs, the disruption of daily routines, and so much more. Those changes have been stressful and traumatic for people across the globe. Last month, a poll revealed that more than half (56%) of US adults have experienced a decline in at least one aspect of their mental wellbeing as a result of the virus. If there’s a silver lining to our collective distress, it’s that the media has caught on. Steadily, mental health issues have made their way into the daily news cycle, eroding the stigma that discourages the media from fully engaging with issues like depression and anxiety. Political affiliation doesn’t seem to matter, either. Everyone from MSNBC to Fox News has ramped up their coverage of mental health, in part because journalists are also feeling the emotional effects of this invisible enemy. Some have written poignant personal essays about their lifelong struggles with trauma and anxiety; others have covered the long-term trauma awaiting health workers on the other side of this crisis; others have documented their own battles with COVID-19 and the resulting stress; still others have reported on how the situation has impacted those with pre-existing depression or anxiety. Publications have a newfound willingness to delve deep into the topic. This development is as heartening as it is surprising. Although American society has become more open about mental health in recent years, news outlets have never had the best reputation in this space. Mental and emotional well-being isn’t most outlets’ bread-and-butter, and depictions of mental illness in pop culture can range from the imperfect to the downright offensive. COVID-19 may be an inflection point. These issues won’t simply retreat when the virus does—we are going to need to address the emotional fallout of COVID-19 for the foreseeable future. And a media environment that acknowledges and covers mental health will ultimately create space to help communicators reach core audiences who may be struggling, communicate more empathetically, and help destigmatize mental illness. Assuaging distress and being considerate of mental health impacts doesn’t necessarily mean talking about it directly; it means anticipating the community’s needs and responding thoughtfully and appropriately. When that time comes, communicators need to follow a few guidelines: 1. Be Personal Consumers are suffering as a result of stress and isolation—namely essential service workers, the elderly, and communities of color—so communicators need to reach out in a way that’s truly personal. That means speaking sincerely and affirming the feelings of your audience. Some organizations have begun hosting “office hours” on Instagram Live, where leaders directly address customers’ worries and questions in real-time. Retailers, like Walmart, have taped videos to showcase in-store precautions and assuage safety concerns. Some spokespeople are even speaking with reporters about how their organization is thinking about mental wellness. 2. Be Informative Consumers don’t know what tomorrow might bring for their health, their wallets, or their lifestyles. Predictions along every axis—from the projected death toll, to congressional action, to the economic damage and unemployment numbers—are changing on a daily basis. People want to be informed and armed to deal with the crisis at hand; that’s where communications comes in. Every website should have a detailed FAQ page and major COVID-19-related announcements should be shared far and wide. But don’t hesitate to go to the media, too. Journalists are eager to share advice with people feeling isolated, financially stretched, or just plain bored. Organizations should contribute their expertise to these types of stories where appropriate. Financial institutions, for instance, can provide budgeting tips for folks struggling to stay afloat. Entertainment companies may be able to offer some positive, lighthearted recommendations for those trying to distract themselves while stuck inside. Every organization has a problem to solve or a demand to meet. Whatever that is, providing helpful, accurate information about it can go a long way toward providing a sliver of stability and solidarity amid all this chaos. 3. Be Thoughtful The effects of this pandemic are going to linger for years to come. As we recover, organizations won’t be able to ignore the first half of 2020 and move on. Doing so would be tone-deaf and off-putting to audiences traumatized by the last few months. An all-clear from the CDC won’t mean communicators should halt their outreach efforts to those who’ve been impacted by the crisis. At no point will PR and marketing professionals have the go-ahead to make light of COVID-19. Instead, be conscientious about how you speak to consumers, employees, and the media. Deliver organizational messages honestly and empathetically, and consider how someone may receive it if they’ve lost their job, struggled with depression, been in the hospital, or lost someone. Ask your audience how they are feeling, even if it’s an email list with thousands of subscribers or a Twitter profile with millions of followers. As we’re all learning, “how are you?” can go a long way. And now, more than ever, the media is there to help you spread that message.