After more than two years of COVID-19, we have learned how to coexist with the virus. We mask up. We socially distance. We receive vaccines and boosters. We know what to do, even if we don’t always do it.
Yet no such easy salves exist for another pandemic that is simultaneously ravaging the country: a mental health crisis stemming in large part from the social and economic strains exacerbated by COVID-19.
According to a World Health Organization report, the prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25% globally during the first year of the pandemic, with women and young people most profoundly impacted. Research published last year by the Boston University School of Public Health found that nearly one in three Americans are struggling with depression. Many experts believe that we could be feeling the impacts of COVID and the trauma it caused for a generation.
For medical marketers, the pandemic’s devastating effect on mental health has served as a critical reminder of the holistic nature of health, and especially how psychological well-being plays a role in every aspect of their work. As Klick Health chief medical officer Holly Henry puts it: “Mental health is health, period.”
Henry believes the pandemic has shown that “people are resilient and engaged, and they want to talk and want to learn.” The message that should send to marketers? “We need to come to them with the communications that are right for them.”
So, as many parts of the world have returned to an uneasy version of daily life, it will be crucial for communicators of all stripes to address the pandemic’s mental health toll head-on. They must also create proactive strategies to address mental wellness, rather than simply try to move on or adapt to the new normal, whatever that ends up being.
After all, “a lot of these issues were major problems before the pandemic,” notes Eric Kussin, the founder of mental health awareness nonprofit #SameHere. For instance, in the U.S., the number of so-called “deaths of despair,” usually defined as suicides and deaths caused by drug overdoses and liver failure from chronic alcohol syndrome, has increased greatly since the mid-1990s, from 65,000 in 1998 to 158,000 in 2018. Of course, the pandemic only exacerbated that trend: From April 2020 to April 2021, the CDC reported that drug overdose deaths increased by 28.5%. COVID-induced stressors have also increased rates of burnout and fatigue among workers.
Consumer brands across the spectrum are responding with marketing that addresses the mental health crisis. Meal kit company Blue Apron has focused on positioning cooking as a form of therapy and meditation, while Powerade’s recent “pause is power” TV ads featured Olympic athletes Simone Biles getting a manicure and British diver Tom Daley knitting.
Kussin believes medical marketers can learn from the Powerade effort, which addresses the nuances of mental wellness beyond clear-cut diagnosis.
“For so long, they’ve broken this topic into, ‘There’s one in five people who have mental illness,’” Kussin says. “Well, what if you’re one of the other four people? We live across this continuum.”
After developing severe PTSD and symptoms of anxiety and depression in his 30s, Kussin was inspired to start #SameHere, which provides resources for individuals struggling with mental health, and recruits athletes and celebrities to speak out about their own challenges. “I had a brother who was sick for 20 years and I lost three close friends back-to-back-to-back. It was an accumulation to the point where that crash happened, because I never did anything about how those things built up in my system over time,” he recalls. His own experience thus emphasized the necessity of preventative mental wellness care.
That shift toward a more proactive approach to mental wellness is what Jacqueline Lovelock, managing director of the health practice at R/GA, has noted with interest in recent years. Her firm works with a range of clients in health services, virtual health, diabetes and glucose management. Across those diverse spheres, “the impact your mental wellness has on your physical being is so prevalent,” she stresses.
Clients are no longer focused on establishing and delineating the mind/body connection, but instead actually connecting patients with mental health offerings. By way of example, she points to recent work with virtual healthcare company Included Health.
“They have a huge amount of therapists and mental health as part of the offering, and we’re figuring out how to actually get those services to the people that need them,” Lovelock says.
Language, of course, is a big part of making that connection — and a huge challenge.
“Connecting those services with the people who need them means understanding what that actually feels like to me as an individual,” she continues. “Mental health could mean depression or anxiety. It could also mean, ‘I can’t concentrate, I have less energy’ .… A lot of what we’ve been doing is normalizing what people are feeling and giving it a connective thread.”
GlaxoSmithKline is another R/GA client tweaking its approach to mental health, which has historically been an afterthought to many pharma companies not heavily invested in the category.
“They’re talking about mental resilience,” Lovelock says. “That was a really interesting flip — like, ‘I spend time trying to get my body strong. What does that look like mentally?’”
Ogilvy Health chief strategy officer Liz Kane says her firm has adopted a similar outlook. It can now tap a host of resources that weren’t readily available a few years ago: a dedicated unit of cultural anthropologists (who “explore relevant societal shifts,” Kane says), terabytes of data on human choice and behavior, and teams trained in experience design.
“No matter what condition we are treating — cancer, infertility, psoriasis or erectile dysfunction — there is usually a strong mental or emotional component to it,” Kane explains. “We need to consider the impact of mental wellness on people’s ability to accept and comply with a treatment.”
Also essential: tailoring communications and messages to the condition. “We have to take care to screen the language we use for greater simplicity if cognition is impaired in people, as it often is in those with Major Depressive Disorder.”
Years before the pandemic, virtual patient support and engagement company Pleio created its GoodStart program with the goal of boosting treatment adherence through patient counseling and digital outreach. Not surprisingly, the company is very much on board with the trend toward more thorough mental wellness support.
“Every patient journey effectively has a mental health component that could benefit from the power of human hello, or a positive affirmation from a real person or a non-clinical peer, as well as a general feeling of ‘You are not alone,’” explains CEO Michael Oleksiw.
While Oleksiw characterizes the pandemic’s expedited shift to telehealth as a “welcomed technological revolution,” adds that it “did little to fill the emotional needs that were lost along the way.” He also suggests that pinning the entirety of the mental crisis on COVID-19 is simplistic.
“It amplified an existing problem where greater health inequality exists,” he continues. That’s why he believes it is incumbent on marketers to “address the contributing factors, like health equity and other social determinants of health.”
Klick Health’s Henry points to a digital divide of sorts, noting that younger millennials and Zoomers place a much higher priority on mental health. Klick recently partnered with ThinkNow to produce a Hispanic health survey, which found that younger people are much more open to mental health diagnoses and even to serve as mental wellness advocates for older family members.
“They’re breaking down some of those longstanding stigmas and barriers around discussing and treating mental health,” Henry says.
Of course, while medical marketers can push back against the harmful stigmas around mental health in their client work, they also have a role to play as employers, managers and colleagues. The pandemic has spurred long overdue discussions of mental health in the workplace — and in a hot labor market, made offering robust mental health resources and support a necessity for companies of all sizes.
Jon Nelson, president of ScriptLift at P/S/L Group, has spoken publicly about his challenges with anxiety and depression in the hopes of spurring change in the way the industry approaches those who are struggling.
“When you suffer from mental illness, it’s hard to move some days. The littlest things are difficult,” he says. “When a company shows somebody internally that it cares about them, it does so much for retention.”
Nelson would like to see wider-spread industry acceptance of once-rare support initiatives, such as mental health days. He also calls on companies to support mental health initiatives, whether or not they work in the space.
“You don’t have to have a depression drug or product to get behind mental wellness,” he says.
To help himself and others, Nelson founded Mental Health Matters, a professional support group. “You hear about people coming in and doing yoga at work. Maybe there’s a way to provide a space to talk about mindfulness,” he says.
Regular check-ins with employees often help. “It could be about anything: how people are feeling, what they’re thinking, you name it,” says Klick chief people officer Glenn Zujew. “We train our managers to be able to say, ‘It’s OK to not be OK.’”
Even seemingly small actions can make a difference. Ogilvy has installed a cameras-off policy for internal meetings across several teams, which, Kane says, relieves some of the “unnecessary pressures and inhibitions.” Klick has no-meeting zones to give people more quiet time, a practice the company has even extended to clients. R/GA has company-wide rest days, which Lovelock says relieve stress about missing work or letting down a teammate.
“It actually feels restorative,” she says.
As for what comes next, Henry sees “consumer technology, such as apps and wearables that help track and monitor emotional states of individuals” as an opportunity waiting to be seized. “It’s so important to understand where people are in order to make a change or act or impact them in a positive way.”
Yet Oleksiw cautions against overconfidence in the marketing community’s abilities to predict what might be important to an individual patient.
“We have not lost our ability to speak to, listen to, observe and learn from direct patient dialogue,” he explains. “Under the right conditions, a confident patient will make their own choices in choosing how, what, when and where they will engage with their therapy. We can use data to target and message, but ultimate engagement stems from the choices patients make for themselves.”
And that means more empathy. As Lovelock puts it, “Marketers are trained to think about connecting with someone as it pertains to their symptoms.” But COVID and the mental health challenges faced by everyone all over the world have “created genuine empathy. This is just how humans are dealing with it, versus a series of symptoms.”
Lending a hand
We asked a range of healthcare companies to share the steps they have taken to ensure the mental wellness of their people. Here are some of the most creative and thoughtful offerings.
Calcium: Instituted the Pharm Friends program, which pairs new hires (fresh on the “pharm”) with experienced hands from different agency departments and client teams.
GCI Health: Allowed employees to customize holiday schedules based on their cultural, religious and personal preferences. It also recategorized “sick days” as “wellness days.”
CMI Media Group and Compas: Expanded the number of options for philanthropy/days of service.
Real Chemistry: Added Modern Health, which offers eight coaching and eight therapy sessions per year, to its benefits package.
Elevate Healthcare: As part of its Self-Care Toolkit, offered to buy a book for each employee once every quarter.
Ogilvy Health: Debuted the 100% You webinar series, featuring non-work-related programming on healthy cooking, financial literacy, caring for plants and more.
Publicis Health: Made health-and-wellness stipend inclusive of “soft benefits” such as art supplies. Cast its second annual employee talent show as a fundraiser for the National Alliance of Mental Illness.
Fingerpaint: Introduced a caregiver policy that allows up to six weeks of 100% paid time off to care for ailing loved ones.
Heartbeat: Commemorated Mental Health Awareness Month with a series of programming and events, including open sessions on postpartum anxiety and perinatal distress during the pandemic.