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College of Media alumni communicate about mental health amid pandemic

graphic that says 1 in 5 Americans live with a mental health condition    

Stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures are in place all over the United States in an effort to protect the physical health of millions of Americans, but the COVID-19 pandemic is also taking its toll on mental health.   

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five Americans live with a mental health condition, and with the current global crisis, they face additional challenges, making communicating about mental health more important than ever.  

Chuck Harman

As the chief development officer, Chuck Harman (BSJ, 1981; MSJ, 1984) leads NAMI’s Strategic  Alliances & Development team , working to solidify partnerships with key stakeholders and celebrity ambassador groups to distribute key messages and resources to the people who need them most. NAMI is the largest grassroots mental health organization in the nation with more than 600 state organizations and affiliates across the nation, as well as relationships with 2 4 Fortune 100 companies.

“We’re continuing to embrace our core mission of providing advocacy, education, support and public awareness about mental illness, but the difference now is that there is so much greater need,” explained Harman. “The traditional coping channels and resources are not feasible right now, so more people are turning to us for support.”

Jessica Edwards

When the COVID-19 virus outbreak happened, Harman and his team, including Director of External Relations Jessica Edwards (BSJ, 2011), had to quickly analyze their current outreach efforts and adapt their messaging and strategy. Certain communications such as mailings were already in process, but going forward, they were able to pivot their messaging to focus directly on the crisis at hand.

“May is mental health month, and we had originally planned to extend our ‘Why Care’ campaign from last year, but then COVID-19 happened and we just felt like that was tone deaf,” said Edwards, “We wanted to be sensitive to what people are dealing with right now, and some people are actually physically alone. We own the phrase ‘You are not alone,’ and as an organization, we decided that bringing that back was the best choice. It wasn’t a new message, but it was one that fit.”

Edwards explained that communicating about mental health has always had its challenges. They are often presented with the need to combat stigma and dispel myths even before sharing their key messages, but COVID-19 presents new challenges for NAMI. They are finding that staying relevant to their stakeholders and partners is more difficult as priorities and focus shifts from business as normal to making ventilators or masks and ensuring that people have work.

“While taking care of our mental health is more relevant than ever during this time, the other reality is that there is a physical illness affecting people,” said Edwards. “You want to be balancing your crisis communication plan.”  

For Harman and Edwards, the transition to working from home was an easy one since they have both been remote employees for NAMI for years. Harman prefers to think of his presence as “virtual” instead of remote – a concept that has been helpful in guiding his current College of Media capstone class.

Harman has been an adjunct faculty member at the College of Media since 1999. And for the past 15 years, he has taught the public relations and strategic communications capstone course, incorporating and leading study abroad trips to such places as Ireland, Italy, Brazil and the United Kingdom. His current class was unable to travel to France and Germany as originally planned, but the class still virtually worked with College of Media alumni and clients in Europe.

“Even before COVID-19, I’ve always told my students that one of the most important things they could do is be flexible,” said Harman. Your ability to pivot both personally, professionally and strategically is critical as a communications professional. It's extremely unfortunate that students have to get through this, but I think they're going to come out stronger and wiser.”  

Harman and Edwards are both optimistic that lessons learned from the current global pandemic will have a positive impact on the marketing communications field, as well as mental health.   

“I think we will move in a positive direction to being more connected wherever we are,” said Harman. “This is also an opportunity for mental health to become very relevant in America, making access to treatment more readily available, as well as giving employers a better understanding of how critical treating mental health is going to be for their workforce.”