Dirty Work on World Mental Health Day

wmhd-2014

10 October 2014 is designated as World Mental Health Day – with a focus this year on schizophrenia. A serious issue but one that is using a tactic that is arguably one of the most common in the PR Toolkit.

This approach of the awareness day, week, month or year is used for health, environmental and other important issues, as well as to promote fun topics, or as part of a marketing campaign. Do they work? It depends on what the objective may be, but they are undoubtedly an opportunity to focus attention and have a reason to talk with media, stakeholders and the wider public about a subject.

It is an ‘agenda setting’ technique – that can have a strategic purpose, but may also simply clutter up already congested communication channels. Having a goal of ‘awareness’ is only step one on the road to action. Sometimes, awareness is the wrong focus as people are already aware, but are not taking action. In those cases, generating more awareness is unlikely to be as effective as addressing the actual roadblock to change.

I notice that another PR hook on World Mental Health Day is ‘Tea & Talk’ apparently to ‘celebrate’ the day. The ‘key message’ is: Have a natter. Raise money. Change lives. Of course, we live in a world where every cause has to include a stunt and engaging activity – particularly one that provides an opportunity for a selfie photo or video to be uploaded to social media – and, by the way, donate to our cause.

But I worry that this promotional focus comes at the expense of the bigger aim of understanding and action for the core issue. Yes, it is the superficial attention-grabbing element that may lead to someone thinking about something that they were unaware of previously. Increasingly such elements are ephemeral and need more and more effort to stand out among all the other campaigns, causes and creative ideas.

If you wish to have Tea & Talk to raise funds for Mental Health causes, then do so. But please also consider some of the more serious aspects of this issue.

When we read about global issues such as ebola outbreaks, wars and natural disasters, remember these mean individuals and communities have to handle huge psychological impacts alongside physical traumas.

Closer to home, are we mindful of the mental health issues affecting friends, family and colleagues – and how we can help at times of stress? How do our organisations respond to such matters – from bereavement to suicide prevention, employment of those living with mental health conditions, identifying challenges such as depression or other stress-related problems?

And how about looking within the occupation of public relations? Stress is seen as integral in the job – often treated in a fun way (“If you don’t want premature wrinkles or gray hair, run!“) or as a badge of honour – with event co-ordination and PR executive being #5 and #6 on CareerCast’s list of most stressful jobs, an article at Ragan.com advised: “Pour yourself a drink tonight – you deserve it…”

Really?

Are issues raised by stress in any occupation, including PR, not worthy of more serious consideration? What about alcoholism and drug abuse associated with PR’s ‘always busy and happy’ culture? What about panic attacks, anorexia, coping with sexual abuse, or early onset dementia? Do consultancies consider depression and other psychological impacts caused by termination of contracts when client business is taken elsewhere? Or the financial stress of young practitioners or placement students on low pay just to get a foot in the door? Do we even recruit those who have schizophrenia, depression or other mental health conditions on their CV?

When I wrote a post at PR Conversations, Presenting the shadows of public relations, in July, I included in one comment a reference to a paper by Liz Bridgen of DeMontfort University: Public Relations – Dirty Work? The argument is that PR often undertakes the kind of activities that are considered unpleasant or socially unacceptable. As such, we could expect that mental health problems for those dealing with society’s underbelly as PR practitioners.

The sociologist, Everett Hughes proposed the concept in his paper: Good People and Dirty Work, published in 1962, and building on a public lecture he’d presented in 1948. In society, certain people do the dirty work of others – we may argue this includes some aspects of public relations, but the concept is more often applied to those employed in mental health services. Sadly, those who have psychological problems may themselves have little option but to undertake low paid, low status, unpopular, “dirty jobs” when they are rejected from other work. Isn’t that alone worth thinking about today?