Mary Karapetian Alvord, PhD
Alvord, Baker & Associates, LLC
Dissemination of accurate mental health information is critical for the well-being of the public. Disseminating evidence-based information helps empower people to make informed decisions about personal mental health care and seeking professional services. Mental health information facilitates the understanding of warning signs of difficulties and disorders and supports the development of skills to strengthen internal and external resources and build resilience. It is incumbent upon us as psychologists to advance the understanding of research-informed principles and interventions.
Information is delivered through numerous formats. This article provides a summary of different methods and strategies for promoting mental wellness to the public. Much of my work has been with the Maryland Psychological Association (MPA) and the American Psychological Association (APA). I address the utilization of traditional media and social media, health fairs and public speaking, APA surveys, and publications written for the public for “giving psychology away.”
Traditional and Social Media
Most state and Canadian province psychological associations have Public Education Committees that operate either through APA or independently of APA. Committees develop strategies to help consumers learn what psychologists do and how mental wellness impacts their lives. Luana Bossolo, Senior Director of Strategic Public Engagement and Community Outreach, explains the broad stroke of public education:
APA has been engaged in public education for 25 years, addressing public health issues such as mental health stigma, youth violence, building resilience, gun violence prevention and racism, to name a few. APA takes a strategic and research-based approach to public education, factoring in psychological science, consumer research, competitive analysis and media scans to see how major societal issues are being addressed. (Personal communication, September 27, 2020)
For 13 years I served as a volunteer APA Public Education Coordinator for the MPA. Throughout my tenure and continuing through today, traditional media (print newspapers, magazines, radio) have played a significant role in imparting information to the public. Committee members have interviewed with national outlets such as NPR, Washington Post, CNN, and local media serving Maryland.
While print media continues to exert a strong force in disseminating information, media has expanded to the 24/7 global online community. MPA Public Education committee has placed more emphasis on developing a social media presence (FB, Twitter, Instagram), making, and posting videos to the MPA website, and writing blogs. Also, members of the committee present trainings to psychologists on maximizing social media to boost public education efforts. Importantly, media ethics and literacy are presented as workshops during MPA’s CE and annual conferences. Bossolo said of APA’s efforts, “We’re even using Facebook and YouTube to broadcast public education events and reach key audiences with partners like the NFL and National PTA” (personal communication, September 27, 2020).
Health Fairs and Public Speaking
Another avenue for interacting with the public is through participation at Health Fairs. Before the pandemic, these were sponsored by hospitals, government agencies, and local clubs. In Maryland, tables were set up for volunteer psychologists at “50+” health fairs, school fairs, and the Y’s Healthy Kids Day. Schools, community colleges, and other organizations also requested speakers to present on topics such as stress management, resilience, warning signs, and trauma.
APA has developed partnerships with organizations such as Microsoft where teachers invite psychologists to speak to their classes about topics of interest (see APA and Skype in the Classroom: Let’s Talk About Mental Health). Bossolo adds such collaborations include:
the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and PBS Education division to reach parents and teachers; the National League of Cities to engage with local public officials; Farm Aid and other agricultural advocacy groups to address farmer stress and stigma on seeking mental health services; various health professional societies to address the psychological impact of COVID on health care providers; and the NFL to reach Black men and youth about mental wellness and psychological strength. (Personal communication, September 27, 2020)
APA Stress in America Surveys
Surveys conducted by APA provide national engagement with individuals in understanding attitudes and coping strategies. Sophie Bethune, Director, Strategic Communications Initiatives manages APA’s “Stress in America” survey. She states:
Our Stress in America survey helps start conversations about stress, which in turn leads to conversations about wellness and mental health. Everyone relates to stress, but unfortunately not everyone is comfortable with talking about mental health. By talking about stress we open the door to discussing mental health and promoting better ways to manage stress – whether through tools like exercise, spending time with friends and family or by talking with a psychologist who can help develop strategies for a healthier life, mentally and physically. (Personal communication, September 8, 2020):
Regarding the role that psychologists play in these surveys, Bethune says,
Psychologists are experts in the science of behavior – and behavior is integral to all aspects of human life. Psychologists are able to provide science-based insight on a huge range of issues including stress, chronic illnesses, health care reform, resilience, workplace issues (e.g., leadership, motivation), racism, health disparities and discrimination. During 2020, psychologists have helped educate the public on important issues such as compliance during mask wearing, the effects of isolation, managing one’s anxiety during COVID-19, assessing risks and how to stay mentally healthy during lockdown. Psychologists can also help demystify therapy and reduce stigma by talking about the therapy process and mental and behavioral health. (Personal communication, September 8, 2020)
Two most recent stress surveys addressed COVID’s impact: (a) Stress in AmericaTM 2020, Stress in Times of COVID-19 Volume 1, (released May 20, 2020); and (b) Stress in AmericaTM 2020, A National Mental Health Crisis (released October 20, 2020).
Publications for the Public
The APA Help Center develops tips sheets on current relevant topics and coping with emergencies (COVID19, Hurricanes, tornados, violence) and general topics of interest. I became involved in 2003 when APA developed the first tips sheets for parents and teachers and teens about resilience. These efforts continue. If you have not visited the website, it is a terrific resource for the public (and psychologists). A few examples: https://www.apa.org/topics/covid-19; https://www.apa.org/topics/bounce-resilience-teens, https://www.apa.org/topics/healthy-technology-use-children, https://www.apa.org/topics/manage-stress-social-support, and https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience. Members of Division 46 also publish books for public consumption and write newspaper columns and essays for media outlets.
In summary, the MPA and APA have made substantial contributions to promoting mental wellness through traditional and social media, health fairs, public speaking events, APA surveys, and publications.
(Editors’ Note: Mary Karapetian Alvord received the 2020 Distinguished Lifetime Contribution to Media Psychology & Technology Award from the APA Society for Media Psychology & Technology.)