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October 8, 2020

Ad campaign’s goal: Opening up about mental health

A new state public awareness campaign aims to encourage people to check in with their friends and loved ones and remember that there may be "more to the story" when it comes to someone's mental health.

The launch of the campaign coincides with National Mental Illness Awareness Week, which runs this year from Oct. 4 through 10.

The #MoreToTheStory campaign seeks to help people look beyond answers like "I'm fine" to recognize signs that someone may be struggling with their mental health and offer support. It underscores the importance of talking about mental health and offers information about what kinds of resources are available.

"The whole idea is, it's research-backed, focused on reducing stigma, normalizing conversations about mental and behavioral health," Senate President Karen Spilka said. "Particularly we're trying to focus, starting the first time for this year, on emerging adults aged 15 to 26, and basically targeting those folks in saying, words can hide what a person is really feeling." 

Sen. Karen Spilka

The effort is paid for through a Behavioral Health Outreach, Access and Support Trust Fund created in last year's budget. As part of a midyear spending bill that Gov. Charlie Baker signed in early March, lawmakers directed that $500,000 from that fund to be used "For a public awareness campaign to promote the availability and use of behavioral health services in the commonwealth."

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said the last time there was a publicly financed mental health awareness campaign in Massachusetts was while she was commissioner of mental health, a post she left in 2003.

"One of the great things that public health does is around messaging, whether it's vaccines or COVID," Sudders said. "It is around taking sometimes complex things and putting it out in the public domain in a way that is understandable."

Spilka and Sudders discussed the new campaign in a recent Zoom call with the News Service.

The campaign was developed by the Boston ad agency ThinkArgus, working with the Department of Mental Health and other state agencies. A social media component began this week, with TV spots set for December, Spilka said.

The campaign was originally slated for a May release but was delayed by the COVID-19 crisis. Instead, in May, Sudders and Spilka jointly announced an early installment of the information campaign -- a social media video encouraging people to reach out, check in with and listen to those who might be struggling to cope with the pandemic, and directing viewers to resources for managing isolation and loneliness -- with more to come later.

Sudders said it's important for people to support each other during the pandemic, and that mental health conditions can often be isolating.

"Mental health conditions will be exacerbated by COVID. In many ways, the timing of this is --"

"Wonderful," Spilka said.

"Perfect," Sudders continued. "Because we're going to see anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder and depression."

Spilka cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey that showed 40 percent of adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use in late June, and that younger adults were among those experiencing rising levels of anxiety and depression.

"We have to focus on the mental and behavioral health of our residents," Spilka said. "COVID-19 is not just a physical health issue. Whether you have it or not, it impacts you."

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