Kids Are in Crisis: How Healthcare Marketers Can Be Part of the Solution


Chris Steenstra

Chief Administrative Officer

Every May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a national movement with the goal of reducing the stigma and providing communities with the information and support they need. For healthcare marketers, it’s an opportunity to be part of the solution to what has become a national crisis.

Kids today are more likely to experience mental health challenges than ever. Even before the pandemic, anxiety and depression were becoming more common among children and adolescents across racial groups, increasing 27% and 24% respectively from 2016 to 2019. By 2020, 5.6 million kids (9.2%) had been diagnosed with anxiety problems and 2.4 million (4.0%) had been diagnosed with depression, according to the CDC.

Some subsets of young people have very different experiences. Female students fare more poorly than males on almost all measures of mental health, including suicidal thoughts and behaviors. A 2021 CDC study found that close to 70% of students who identify as LGBTQ+ reported experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the past year, and more than 50% had poor mental health during the past 30 days. Almost 25% attempted suicide during the past year.

It’s hard to pinpoint one specific cause, but several factors may contribute—from academic pressures and cyberbullying to lack of connectedness at school. According to Global Web Index, among the 16- to 24-year-old group, top factors affecting mental health are feelings of loneliness (38%), sleeping problems (32%) and social media (29%). When using social media, 17% of those 16 to 24 say they feel “like everyone is having a better time than me,” significantly higher than all other age groups.

Exacerbating the problem, of course, is the still-prevalent stigma around mental illness. Talking openly about mental illness while “equalizing” mental and physical illness are important milestones on the journey to fighting stigma.

Government funding for school-based programs will help ensure services reach those who need them. In February 2023, the U.S. Department of Education announced awards of more than $188 million across 170 grantees in over 30 states to increase access to school-based mental health services and to strengthen the pipeline of mental health professionals in high-needs districts.

Municipalities are getting on board, too. In March, New York City announced a plan focused on improving family and child mental health. Last month, Cleveland announced it would use American Rescue Plan dollars to increase telehealth, or virtual counseling, services, as well as expand the number of mental health providers.

Of course, healthcare providers on the front lines of the youth mental health crisis play a critical role. More must be done to support mental health services with smart marketing to build awareness and connect with target audiences in welcoming and authentic ways.

Mower has had the opportunity to support two healthcare providers in recent years who are committed to improving access to and understanding of mental health services. Helio Health serves Upstate New York communities with a broad range of services for children, youth and adults facing mental illness. One recent campaign, TransformNation™, emphasizes the importance of community support in fighting mental illness and substance-use disorders. The campaign leveraged Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Reddit to drive over 300,000 video views and 15,000 new users to the Helio Health website in just three months.

Another recent initiative for Allegheny Health Network (AHN) focuses on childhood social-emotional development, teaching children ages three to six how to process their emotions and express themselves. To accomplish this, Mower partnered with AHN to create branding and launch materials for their new YouTube series, “Cai & Kate.” Cai, a puppet chameleon that changes colors, and Kate, a behavioral therapist at AHN’s Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Institute, blend puppetry, music and education to teach “chill skills” to both children and parents. The YouTube series kicked off with a premier, inviting young, school-aged children to meet Cai & Kate, get a first look at episode one and participate in a variety of fun, engaging activities. A total of 10 free episodes are scheduled for release throughout the year to continue the conversation with the intent to reduce the rising rates of behavioral health issues among children.

Both campaigns successfully put human needs at the center of the strategy to create an authentic connection with audiences—whether child, teen or adult. As healthcare marketers, we can’t solve the mental health crisis, but we can use our skills and insights about the challenges facing these communities to make a meaningful connection and, hopefully, to make a difference.

So how can healthcare marketers and communications professionals “show up” for their organizations to promote positive mental health? Here are some ways to get started:

  • Open the conversationToo often, we are reluctant to talk about mental health issues we have experienced. The simple act of speaking our truth can help create connection and understanding—which is exactly what we as marketing and communications pros do in other facets of our work lives! We can be inspired by leaders in other fields who are courageously sharing their challenges, like Imagine Dragons lead singer Dan Reynolds, who shares his personal battle with depression and anxiety from the concert stage.
  • Join the fight for fundingYou can help fight stigma by beginning to equalize marketing budget support for physical and mental illness. Take the actions you can so mental health services receive the marketing and communications support required to reach the people who need them.
  • Really know your audienceYour marketing programs can make a real human connection if they reflect a true understanding of the audience. That usually means firsthand experience—research that goes beyond demographics of adults, teens and children to their human experiences, feelings and obstacles to seeking mental health services.
  • Practice self-care and seek careBe the change you want to see in the world by tending to your own and your family’s mental health needs. The healthcare industry is full of burnout and stress, which lead to mental health challenges. But we can practice what we preach. Get the nourishment, hydration, sleep and body care you need.​ Unplug from tech when you can (especially challenging for us marketers!), go outdoors and connect with each other. And treat your own mental health symptoms as you would any physical symptom—don’t delay getting the care you need.

As writer and mental health advocate Katie Reed notes: “Self-care means giving the world the best of you​ instead of what is left of you.” That’s true for all of us—healthcare providers and marketers included.

Hey! Our name is pronounced Mōw-rrr, like this thing I’m pushing.

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