If you live in Minnesota, odds are you’ve probably heard of Make It OK, a public service campaign — featuring huge, empty talk bubbles looming over people’s heads — created by HealthPartners to encourage thoughtful, open conversations about mental illness.
The campaign, which was launched in May 2013 (and, full disclosure, includes ads that have appeared on MinnPost), focused on breaking down stigma through a series of television, print and radio ads and a regional Emmy Award-winning documentary produced by Twin Cities Public Television (TPT).
The comprehensive campaign, which was funded jointly by HealthPartners, Regions Hospital Foundation and private philanthropy, won kudos for its work to increase public understanding of mental illness, but two years in, its creators still felt more work could be done to spread their message.
“We were pleased with what we’d accomplished so far,” said Donna Zimmerman, HealthPartners’ senior vice president for government and community relations, “but we also knew that we could still reach a different, broader audience. To do that, we wanted to create an interactive program, one that could be accessed by more people and even used as an educational toolkit for businesses.”
To expand the campaign’s reach, HealthPartners hired Beth Hoeppner, a freelance multimedia producer, to create Make It OK Interactive, an expansion of the original campaign that features interactive elements that can be used for workplace training or community education. The new program was launched in May.
“People were saying they loved the original campaign,” Hoeppner said, “but a number were also saying that they wished there was a little bit more meat to it.”
The personal touch
In Make It OK Interactive, the “meat” is dished up in the form of extended interviews with Minnesotans who have been diagnosed with mental illness. The TPT documentary expanded on the topic through a series of in-depth profiles of people who tell about everyday life with mental illness; Make It OK Interactive features the perspectives of some of the documentary participants as well as other volunteers.
The personal stories — which are broken down and presented in the interactive course as medical histories, communication tips and advice for concerned colleagues and friends — help humanize mental illness and those who experience it.
“We wanted to give viewers tangible, nugget-sized bits of information on how to be helpful or respond or get to know people with mental illness,” Hoeppner explained. “People’s stories come together through the course.”
“Make It OK” public service campaign ad
When a person who looks like your friend, your uncle or the woman who sits at the next desk talks openly about his or her experiences with mental illness, it becomes a more approachable topic, said Hoeppner, who worked with a videographer to record interviews with volunteers. It was an eye-opening experience.
“When I had a chance to sit down and really talk with someone who has been diagnosed with mental illness, that made a big difference in my level of understanding and compassion,” she said. “If this program helps us give that feeling to participants, that’s wonderful. Our goal is to look for another way to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.”
Some observers had said that the original campaign’s looming talk bubbles felt too empty, lacking personal backstories or detailed advice. Zimmerman said the interactive site is another way to further people’s understanding of mental illness and the everyday lives of people who live with a diagnosis.
“We consider Make It OK Interactive to be a deeper dive into the program,” she said, “compared with just looking at a billboard or watching an ad on TV. It really opens up the experience for the participant.”
Make It OK Interactive is designed as a training-and-education course that a person could take at work or at home. Before they began work on the project, HealthPartners surveyed employers about their interest in offering workers a free interactive education tool about mental illness. Many said they would be interested in offering such a program. It felt like a natural extension of an employee wellness plan, Zimmerman said, something that could encourage healthy conversations around a topic that is too often seen as taboo.
“One in four people are impacted by a mental illness,” she explained, “so odds are high that employees in any workplace are going to have something to talk about on the subject. This program offers employers a flexible option for training. Workers can sit at their desks, listen to stories, take the course and increase their understanding. It’s that easy. And anybody in the community can also go out to the website and complete the course themselves. We think that’s really powerful.”
Zimmerman said that HealthPartners worked closely with staff at NAMI-Minnesota on every aspect of the campaign. The nonprofit health care organization is now promoting Make It OK Interactive to major employers around the state. “We are looking at opportunities where HR professionals come together,” she said. “We did a webinar in May with the Minnesota Hospital Association. We drew attention to the interactive kit.”
So far, response from people who’ve taken the online course has been positive, Zimmerman said, cautioning that it is still “just so new, so we don’t yet have a wide sample to draw from.”
She continued: “I get stories from people who say they are so happy we are finally doing something in this area. The initial reaction has been that people just absolutely love it. It really brings across the personal storytelling aspect, and they love the ease of using it. ”
Take the pledge
Two years ago, when the Make It OK campaign launched, a centerpiece of the program was a pledge that participants could sign, stating their intention to “do their part to erase stigma surrounding mental illness.”
One way to track the campaign’s impact is pledge numbers, Zimmerman said: “In the month of May, we saw our pledges spike by 2,000, which is really a big jump in one month. People are actually taking the pledge, which is very fun to see.”
A spike in pledges is exciting, Hoeppner said, but they it is actually just a small indicator of the campaign’s success. If the new educational course means that Make It OK’s message further blankets the state, that could only be good: There is no downside to encouraging people to talk openly about mental illness. The project hasn’t been cheap, but it’s a good investment in overall health.
“HealthPartners has invested a fair amount of money into the whole campaign,” Hoeppner said. “I’m really excited that a local organization decided to devote money and time and effort to this because it is something that’s really needed.”
It’s needed, Zimmerman added, because the more people start talking about mental health, the more likely they are to get the help they so desperately need.
“People with mental illness take an average of 10 years to seek help. We know that increased sigma means that people will avoid care for a mental illness. Mental illness is very common with other types of chronic conditions. Like other health conditions, mental health issues are treatable. With the campaign, we are hoping we can get that message across that people can get better.”