A statewide social marketing campaign to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness has brought economic benefit to California’s economy, a new study says.
How? By boosting the employability, productivity and incomes of people afflicted by psychiatric conditions, according to the study, published Thursday by the RAND Corporation, a Santa Monica-based policy think tank.
The study showed that people in need of mental health treatment who were exposed to the anti-stigma message of the social marketing campaign were more likely to seek help. Those who get treatment have a significantly higher chance of finding good-paying jobs, thus contributing more tax dollars to state coffers, it said.
“This is an important finding,” said Alejandra Acuña, an assistant professor of social work at California State University, Northridge. “Social marketing campaigns have been used with great results to change behavior and address public health concerns like nutrition and HIV testing.”
“Universal approaches like social marketing target entire communities, so by their very nature they are not stigmatizing and a great opportunity to shift social norms,” she said.
The Rand study examined an effort launched in 2011 by the California Mental Health Services Authority (CalMHSA), a coalition of counties, to improve the mental health of Californians.
Reducing stigma, especially in the minds of people who suffer from mental illness, was a key priority. Central to the effort was a multi-faceted social media campaign that delivered stigma-reducing messages in a variety of forms, including documentaries, public services announcements, online public forums and multimedia advertisements.
An important part of the media campaign was a documentary that recounts the stories of California residents who have suffered from mental illness and recovered. It was broadcast numerous times on public television stations, showed to community groups and other audiences and is posted on the CalMHSA-funded website, EachMindMatters.org.
Another key element of the campaign was an online discussion forum for adults 18 to 24 years old, ReachOut.com, where people can log on to seek or provide emotional support or help in relationships, school or work.
CalMHSA’s stigma-busting efforts are funded by the California Mental Health Services Act, also known as Proposition 63, which imposes a 1 percent tax on incomes of $1 million or more to fund county mental health programs.
“The goal is to change the conversation [about mental health] in our society by increasing knowledge and changing attitudes,” said Wayne Clark, executive director of CalMHSA. “The better mental health people have, the more productive citizens they will be.”
Scott Ashwood, lead author of the RAND study, said an estimated 121,000 people per year seek mental health treatment after being exposed to a social marketing campaign’s anti-stigma, anti-discrimination message.
The Rand study authors surveyed a sample of 1,066 Californians who had previously reported “mild to serious” psychological distress, and found that 35 percent of them had been exposed to social media messages related to reducing the stigma of mental illness. That group of people was more likely to have received treatment.
The study also provides some hard numbers on the financial return of these efforts. Its authors calculated that for each $1 invested in spreading the message, the state government will ultimately reap $36 in extra tax dollars. And for the state as a whole, that $1 will generate $1,251 in economic benefits, according to the study.
Ashwood said it was difficult to put a dollar value on all the benefits of reducing stigma and discrimination, so the study could actually underestimate the returns.
The authors derived their estimate of the financial benefit by looking at people who got jobs after treatment or who missed fewer work days because their mental health improved.
Discrimination against people with mental health illnesses continues to be a serious social problem, experts say, though many of them think society is headed in the right direction.
And stigma in the eyes of others isn’t the only problem.
“Part of it has to with a person’s own self-perception,” said Tom Loats, director of behavioral health at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif. “People believe they have to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. That’s silly. You can’t do that for diabetes or heart disease.”
Jenny Delacruz, behavioral health program director at Anaheim Global Medical Center, which has a large psychiatric ward, said she believes that greater social acceptance of people with mental illness makes them more comfortable in their own skin and eases their assimilation back into society.
“If they recognize and accept their illness, they will seek treatment and function better,” Delacruz said. But they have to jump through the stigma barrier, she said, that’s where these social media campaign efforts can help.