How influencers can help shape safe conversations about mental health

To connect young people with the resources they need to protect their mental healthit is important to understand how they usually seek and process information. For example, instead of getting all their facts from recognized experts or established outlets, many young people are absorbing and trusting information from social media, their peers and leading voices in their communities.

This can be especially true for topics related to mental health. That’s because people seek out trusted places and trusted friends to raise sensitive topics and have deep conversations.

The Jed Foundation (JED) has seen how effective it is when: normal peopleinfluential icons and even celebrities engage in mental health conversations with teens and young adults. We know that all content creators, from professional journalists to TikTokers, have the ability to influence how mental health is experienced, what conversations happen, and what information is widely shared. Online influencers have the voice, platform and opportunity to reach young people and improve their general awareness about mental health warning signs, resources and treatment options. That’s why we believe they should continue to do so – in a responsible manner.

It’s not enough just to talk about mental health; it matters too how these stories are told. If told in a way that is unsafe or stigmatizing, they can do harm. Unfortunately, young people with existing mental health problems are particularly susceptible to influence, so it is important to discuss mental health in a way that encourages seeking help, preserves the dignity of people with mental health problems, and reduces harmful consequences.

Here are a few tips for telling stories about mental health issues safely and effectively:

  • Avoid language that stigmatizes mental illness or substance abuse. If the person had a mental illness or substance use disorder, don’t use terms like “disturbed,” “crazy,” or “addict.” Avoid using phrases like “John was schizophrenic” or “Jane was an alcoholic” as this kind of language defines a person by their condition. Instead, focus on symptoms and warning signs. Accurate, informative descriptions can help people notice warning signs in themselves or others. For example, “John struggled with symptoms of a serious mental illness” or “Jane was working to recover from an alcohol addiction.”
  • Include guides on content related to mental health. Make sure your audience knows how to easily connect with a counselor if they’re upset about the topic you’re discussing. We recommend the following: Text START to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK.

Mainstream media coverage of mental illness tends to focus on factors such as crime and violence, and major media outlets report on celebrity deaths from suicide. This can have a detrimental effect on news consumers. “Suicide contagion” can occur when a suicide death is sensational (in the case of a celebrity death) or normalized (discussed as if it were an expected outcome for a person with a diagnosed mental illness or a history of substance abuse). When the suicide method is emphasized, it can also lead to “copycat suicide.”

However, independent content creators can have more nuanced, safe, and sensitive conversations while sharing information on how to seek help and avoid suicide. Remarkable, citizen journalism by people with mental illness has the potential to educate the public and reduce stigma. The level of detail included, the language usedand how the loss of life is treated can all have a direct impact on the public’s perception of suicide and may even help prevent it.

Here are our recommendations for safe language when discussing suicide:

  • Don’t use the phrase “committed suicide”. This language is obsolete and refers to suicide as a criminal offence. Instead, use factual language about the cause of death. For example: ‘died by suicide’.
  • Avoid using language that considers suicide a ‘success’. This language suggests that suicide is something to be achieved. Conversely, it can contribute to the idea that not acting on suicidal thoughts—or surviving a suicide attempt—is a “failure.” Use neutral language instead. Use phrases like “suicide attempt survivor” or “lost by suicide.”

Find more guidelines here.

As an influencer or content creator, look for opportunities to expand the mental health and treatment view to reflect the full continuum:

  • Discuss mental health as part of overall health. Normalize taking care of mental health in the same way as you take care of your physical health.
  • Find ways to make mental health issues recognizable and universal, even if you’re telling a story about a person with a diagnosed condition or extreme circumstances.
  • Help your audience understand that treatment, coping strategies, and self-care can benefit anyone at any time. Mental health professionals are trained to help clients with a wide variety of more common problems, such as relationship problems and work stress. They can help teens and young adults proactively strengthen their mental health through coping skills and lifestyle changes.

Promoting mental health support and self-care through stories can encourage young people to seek help, improve their quality of life, and even prevent suicide.

The Mental Health Media Guide is designed to help content creators achieve those goals. It was created by a coalition of mental health experts, partner organizations such as JED, and professionals from a range of media and entertainment companies, with the goal of providing evidence-based recommendations to empower storytellers across platforms, media, and experience levels. It also addresses the need to represent diverse communities and expand the picture of mental health experiences.

The Jed Foundation encourages media producers and online influencers to continue creating content and hosting conversations related to mental health and suicide; we also strongly encourage them to take the time to learn best practices for sharing these stories safely and responsibly.

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