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Digital Duo Takes Home Award for an Innovative Campaign to Combat Mental Health Issues in Youth

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Written by Tyler Smith on May 19, 2022

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that half of the nation’s adolescents have experienced a mental health disorder, such as depression, anxiety, or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at some time in their lives. Many young people receive treatment to prevent these and other issues from worsening and becoming chronic, but many others do not, leading to problems that persist into adulthood and have serious consequences, both for the individuals and for society.

The COVID-19 pandemic and a variety of other social and economic pressures have increased the incidence of mental health issues among adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s time to talk about the problem and bring it into the light, said Samantha Bertomen, a Master of Public Health candidate in the Department of Community & Behavioral Health at the Colorado School of Public Health.

“Youth are really suffering and their mental health issues are just growing,” Bertomen said. “We need to create awareness and destigmatize mental health.”

A digital campaign to shine a light on mental health issues in young people

Bertomen and Lisa Peters, who is seeking a Master of Public Health degree at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, recently collaborated on a project to illuminate the mental health issues youth face, explain the importance of discussing and treating them, and give young people a platform to voice their own experiences with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and other challenges.

The pair’s project recently competed with five other graduate public health schools and won the 2022 Student Health Edu-Thon graduate digital competition held by the Society for Public Education (SOPHE). They met the challenge of creating a digital intervention to address adolescent mental health with a campaign they named #MyMentalHealthMatters.

Bertomen said she and Peters initially discussed focusing on a single mental health issue and developing an app to address it, but decided a campaign with a “comprehensive approach” to mental health problems would have more staying power. The issues they targeted after research include depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, substance use disorder, eating disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, Bertomen said.

The campaign proposal relies on videos, podcasts, a website, social media and a school-based program to bring the mental health challenges young people face out of the shadows and to the forefront of public health and policy discussions, Bertomen said. She and Peters targeted the campaign at Jefferson County, Colorado, with the idea that it could be rolled out and tailored to the needs of other Colorado communities, as well as nationally.

A mental health intervention based on storytelling

The campaign takes an evidence-based approach to build the case for a digital intervention. Bertomen and Peters used data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Alliance on Mental Illness to estimate the number of adolescents in Jefferson County at 113,000. Statistics indicate about one in five will have a mental health issue, meaning that around 22,000 adolescents in the county could benefit from education about their condition and services to treat it. In turn, preventive mental health services delivered through #MyMentalHealthMatters could save Jefferson County nearly $48 million in downstream healthcare and social services costs, Bertomen and Peters concluded.

The data gathering and statistical analysis were a necessary foundation for the campaign, but Bertomen said she and Peters believe it is vital that young people bring the numbers to life with stories drawn from their own experiences.

“We want to talk about mental health from the perspective of youth,” Bertomen said. “A lot of times  we have this idea of public health people telling the community what we want them to do and what we think is necessary. In our campaign we tried to use storytelling, where youth would be front and center.”

Bertomen said the “main paradigm” the campaign uses for storytelling is a Public Health Reaching Across Sectors (PHRASES) study that tapped into insights from four focus groups of citizens, interviews with public health professionals and other sources. The study and toolkit produced from it assert that “storytelling is one of the most effective forms of communication and is especially well-suited for communications about public health.”

For the #MyMentalHealthMatters campaign, Bertomen and Peters envision eight videos featuring young people from various demographics, genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations speaking about a particular mental health issue they face and how it affects them, the obstacles they face to getting help, and the allies they rely on to cope. Speakers will then introduce a “a data-driven program-based approach for methods to thrive with a mental illness,” Bertomen said, and discuss how the strategies helped them. A final “call to action” with suggested resources for help will spur listeners to confront their issues and seek help for them, she added.

The campaign approach also includes weekly podcasts, a website that serves as a portal to a variety of resources, search engine optimization tracking to connect with youth seeking mental health information, and the hashtag to encourage people to share stories and experiences, Bertomen said.

Solving problems by listening

All of these approaches rest not only on listening to the voices of young people in the community but also actively seeking their input, she added.

“It’s difficult to build rapport and community engagement,” she said. “As public health professionals, that is something that we constantly talk about and it is essential to the process. If we want to accomplish anything in this world as professionals, we really need to be talking to the people who actually experience these public health issues.”

It will take plenty of time, money and other resources to implement the #MyMentalHealthMatters campaign, Bertomen acknowledged. But she and Peters may have another opportunity this summer to present their ideas again in an online seminar. At the very least, the more the two talk about their ideas, the more they can encourage their peers to discuss the challenges mental health issues present as freely as they would a medical illness.

“It’s very important to talk about mental health openly,” Bertomen concluded. “It’s easier to do that when the door is open.”