The recent “The Lancet Commission on global mental health and sustainable development” outlined an important new blueprint to address the urgent need to redefine the mental health agenda.
The authors provided an architectural framework to enact this change built on four pillars that establish mental health as a public good, reshape it along a continuum, recognize the multifactorial nature of it, and establish it as a human right.
To effectively build these pillars, The Lancet Commission suggests six major points of action: (i) scaling up mental health as part of universal health access; (ii) addressing the human factors that represent barriers and threats to mental health; (iii) reinforcing the importance of placing mental health squarely in public policy; (iv) expanding the universe of mental health interventions through nonspecialists, digital interventions, and those with lived mental health experiences; (v) calling for additional investments in mental health; and (vi) investing in research and innovation.
However, in order to achieve significant progress in mental health, there must be a renewed effort to redefine how it is perceived among individuals, families, communities, governments, and funding organizations. The actions outlined in the commission will be difficult to achieve if the stigma engulfing mental health is not reversed.
Individuals must be able to access mental health services without fear or judgment and families across vastly different cultural, social, and economic backgrounds must view mental health with understanding and compassion.
Communities and governments must aim to invest resources that reach each individual to ensure their citizens reach their greatest potential. Furthermore, funding organizations must recognize the human dimension of the challenges in mental health, often clouded by the immense scale of the problem.
Powerful, evidence-based, creative communications can shape how populations think and act. More than slogans and tag lines, truly effective communications make emotional connections to the audience, and in their best form become viral, organically reaching far more people than intended initially.
We suggest four areas from the commission’s report where effective communications will be required to achieve its objectives and where substantial differences can be made to redefine the mental health agenda.
First, there needs to be a major focus to align and balance thinking about the role of prevention in mental health versus treatment of mental illness. As people focus on their own mental health to an increasing degree, those affected become part of an accepted continuum of mental wellness. Thus, health care communications must facilitate the delineation between population-based interventions and those focused on severe mental illness — to ensure that each situation is addressed appropriately and neither is devalued. Good mental health should start with children and their caregivers, supported by their educators, and integrated into a broad collaborative care framework throughout life.
Second, much greater effort needs to be placed on developing culturally informed, regional communications strategies to reduce stigma in mental health. This may include the adoption of culturally relevant terms to describe functional impairment in addition to mental illness classification. Mental health would benefit greatly from “rebranding,” from one of fear and hopelessness to caring and compassion. However, any rebranding effort needs to be adapted to societal and cultural backgrounds.
Third, funding organizations must be presented with an emotional connection to those who need assistance and see the value of allocating resources to addressing the problem, despite the immense challenges of mental health across the globe. New communications tools must be developed that convey the human element to an individual’s mental health.
All stakeholders — mental health professionals, scientists, patient advocates, economists, academics, and the pharmaceutical industry — must embrace this new mental health brand consistently across disciplines so that they are speaking with one voice as they advocate for the additional financial resources needed.
Finally, new communications tools, including digital and social media approaches, need to be developed for nonspecialists, including caregivers and educators, to facilitate the integration of effective interventions across the continuum of mental wellness and to elevate the voices of those with lived experiences of mental disorders.
There needs to be a major call to action among health communications professionals to bring new, creative, targeted, culturally relevant, and more effective means to achieve tangible results across all four pillars and address all of the barriers to improved mental health.
Without this, the substantial efforts, collaboration, and resources so desperately needed will fall short of creating a seamless new world of mental health and wellness.