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Why is mental health stigma so important, and what can marketeers do to tackle it?

Stigma around mental illness deepens the challenges faced by those suffering from poor mental health.

As well as affecting their social and work relationships, it discourages people from accessing the help they need.  New research from King’s Business School suggests that ‘mindset targeting’ approaches using social media can help marketeers to change lives by changing attitudes to mental illness.

The benefits of changing perceptions

The benefits to be gained from changing the public’s perception of mental illness are well-established.  A global study by King’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience shows that in countries where the public feels more comfortable talking to people with mental illness, individuals with mental illness had less self-stigma and felt more empowered.  Reducing stigma would bring economic benefits too; the World Health Organisation calculates the cost of untreated mental illness at US$16.3 trillion globally for 2011–2030.

However, studies suggest that attempts to change attitudes to mental illness through anti-stigma campaigns have only had short-lived or weak effects, even if conventional marketing metrics show that they have got their message in front of large audiences via social media.

Anti-stigma campaigns could be more effective if they used more messaging treating mental health as the same as physical health.– Professor Ko De Ruyter, Head of the Marketing Research Group

Limited Impact

Ko De Ruyter, Professor of Marketing at King’s Business School and colleagues set out to explore why these campaigns are having only a limited impact.  The team started by analysing the content of 20 major campaigns and found that their messages tended to address the complex causes of mental illness and its association with other factors like financial or physical wellbeing.  Messages that presented mental health and its causes as the same as a purely physical illness were less common.

The messages of these campaigns are not wrong; mental illness is indeed complex. But not everyone sees things the same way, so we decided to test whether matching messages to mindsets might be a more effective way to change attitudes.– Professor Ko De Ruyter, Head of the Marketing Research Group

The team then devised a study that enabled them to compare the responses of ‘categorical’ thinkers, those who tend to think of the world in terms of absolutes, with those of ‘dimensional thinkers’ who see the world and human behaviour as interconnected and changing.

What can marketeers do?

The team found several significant differences. First, ‘categorical thinkers’ were more likely to put more social distance between themselves and mental illness, implying that they were more likely to stigmatise it.  Second, a message that treated mental health in the same terms as physical health had a bigger impact on their thinking than a more complex ‘psycho-social’ message. 

However, the team also found evidence that when it comes to severe mental illness, matching the right messaging with the right mindset made less of a difference.

“This suggests that anti-stigma campaigns could be more effective if they used more messaging treating mental health as the same as physical health. Our study of actual campaigns showed that messages like ‘you wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg to just ‘walk it off’’ were also more likely to be shared, liked and commented on.” says Professor de Ruyter.

“Given the difference that matching message to mindset can make, marketeers working in this area should look to make greater use of the more sophisticated targeting that social media offers over traditional advertising.  For example, they should consider mini-surveys or data-mining to tailor the content individuals see.  Combining this with more emphasis on ‘medical’ type messages will give marketers far greater bang for their bucks both in pure reach, and in changing the way that people with mental illness are seen and treated.”

“Finally, it gives some insight into the challenge of tackling stigma for illnesses that are perceived as more severe. Here, a phased approach might work, first focussing on less severe examples of a condition so that people are more receptive, and then by matching people with the right kind of anti-stigma message.”

In this story

Ko de Ruyter

Ko de Ruyter

Professor of Marketing


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