Concerned about how nearly a year of forced physical separation is impacting the mental health of the state’s citizens, a group of experts at the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) hatched a plan: #StayConnectedMN, a public health campaign providing a monthlong set of mental-health-promotion templates that employers and community leaders can use to deliver helpful, timely messages encouraging behaviors that enhance the mental health of their employees and community members.
Anna Lynn, mental-health-promotion coordinator for MDH’s Children and Family Health division, said that she and her colleagues were inspired to create #StayConnectedMN in response to reports of a general sag in our collective mental health — despite the promise held by lowered statewide case rates and more readily available vaccines.
“We were all very concerned about the impact that COVID has had on everyone’s mental well-being and mental health in general,” Lynn said. While she and her colleagues cannot make the virus go away any faster, they realized that they did have access to information that could help exhausted community members make it through what feels like a punishingly long homestretch.
“We know about the tools that are out there,” she said. “We wanted to help people and communities use some of them now, when we really need it.”
Tanya Carter, MDH suicide prevention supervisor, explained that #StayConnectedMN was “a collaborative effort. We were hearing from our community partners that they were looking for tools and resources to use to share with their customers, their employees. We wanted to pull together some really good ideas that they can share about what they can do to boost their mental health and well-being.”
As the virus took hold in the state, MDH’s public health professionals in particular were spread thin, Lynn said, as they worked to help manage their clients’ mounting mental health concerns while caring for their own well-being.
“Early on we recognized the stress that our public health folks were managing was through the roof,” she said. In an effort to help MDH staff boost their own mental health, Lynn and her colleagues began putting together a collection of tools and messages around mental health support for their colleagues in the department.
“We were sharing these messages on our intranet,” she explained. When their colleagues told them that the information they’d compiled was helpful, Lynn, Carter and the rest of their team started talking about ways to share it with a larger audience.
“We started to ask ourselves,” Lynn said, “‘How can we package these ideas for other people so they don’t have to come up with this themselves?’”
Stephanie Anderson, communications coordinator in MDH’s injury and violence prevention section, explained that she, Carter and Lynn came up with the idea of #StayConnectedMN as a way to spread messages about mental health promotion to the largest audience possible.
“It is a large-scale communications campaign,” she said. “It’s focused on the importance of staying connected to each other — while staying physically apart, of course.”
By bringing their message to a diverse statewide audience, Lynn said program creators hope that they will further normalize the idea that caring for your mental health is as important as caring for your physical health.
“We all know about some of the things we can do to improve or maintain our physical health,” Lynn said, “but do we all know the things we can do to improve or maintain our mental health? We want users to use this as a guide for enhancing mental health in trying times.”
How StayConnected works
The campaign’s creators like to think of #StayConnectedMN as a toolkit that provides mental health information and messaging that can be used to promote tools for surviving tough times.
“It’s meant to be used in workplaces so the messages can be rolled out in an email at the beginning of the week to share with employees,” Carter explained. The concept is that an employer or community leader could pick up the pre-created messages and then tailor them to meet the needs of their workplace or community.
“We have created messaging for four weeks,” Carter said. “Each week has a theme. The first week is, ‘Connect with yourself.’ The second week is, ‘Connect with others.’ The third week is, ‘Create a healthy environment.” The fourth week is, ‘How to find help and support.’”
When she and her colleagues were planning the campaign, the original idea was that it would be specifically designed for employers, Lynn said, but they soon realized that these messages could be delivered to members of any group or organization.
“It really could work for anybody. This could also be used in a religious congregation or a community group. If you have an audience of any size, you can take these messages and share them.”
The #StayConnecedMN toolkit is available for free on the MDH website.
“People can use these messages in group emails or post them online in social media,” Lynn said. She and her colleagues also thought, she continued, that users might want to “get creative and use the theme of the week and the messages to guide other interactions, say if they have a weekly meeting with their senior mentors or something, this could be a perfect topic. They could say, ‘Here are some key messages you could bring to your team.’”
Because they want their campaign to reach as many Minnesotans as possible, #StayConnectedMN’s creators encourage users to take the messages and make them their own.
“We recognize that other people have creative ideas,” Lynn said. “They can add information to the mix. They can craft the message to fit their audience. For the most part, the messages are relevant to adults and older youth, but other than that, they are fairly applicable across all populations.”
The department is also working on other ways to further spread the campaign’s message, Lynn added. “We are getting these messages translated into Hmong, Somali, Spanish and Karen.”
Leading up to the campaign’s official Feb. 1 launch, in late January the department offered a webinar for organizations and individuals interested in hearing more about how to make the campaign work for specific audiences.
Around 275 people attended the webinar, with attendees representing a range of organizations and professions, including school districts, nonprofits, mental health providers, public health workers, rehabilitation counselors, nurses and human services organizations.
Anderson said that the campaign was also designed with easy ways to include messaging on social media. “We’re producing three to five social media posts per week that can be picked up and used by anyone who’s interested,” she said.
And the campaign’s hashtag should help build momentum and interest.
“That way other organizations and individuals can build off of each other,” Anderson said. “That will help keep the conversation going.”
Feelings of isolation and loneliness aren’t just hard on our mental health. They can also impact a person’s physical well-being.
Rates of isolation were already on the increase when the pandemic hit, forcing even more people to retreat inside and stay away from others. Research, including a 2020 study released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, reported that one third of adults age 45 and older feel lonely, and that one fourth of adults age 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated.
Social isolation can be a health risk, Lynn said.
“There is evidence that loneliness and isolation can have an even more negative impact on our life expectancy than smoking and substance abuse.”
It’s not just older adults who are experiencing social isolation, Lynn added: “Right now that’s happening across the whole population.” That’s why she and her colleagues at MDH felt it was essential to create #StayConnectedMN.
“Social isolation can be a downward spiral, a cyclical process. We get in our heads. We start to think negative thoughts and we don’t have an outlet to connect with people. The more isolated we are the less likely we are, even if we are lonely, to reach out. There is a stigma against loneliness. That’s part of the cycle.”
Though they understand that public health campaigns like #StayConnectedMN can’t be a cure-all for what ails us, Carter, Lynn and Anderson hope that for some people, at least the information they include will help break the cycle of negativity that’s been enveloping our world.
“My sense is that we have recognized more clearly than before the value of our connections with others,” Lynn said. “These tips and messages we’re providing will be relevant to today and what we are all going through collectively. In this unusual, trying time, we all have to be a bit more active and intentional about our mental well-being.”