March 30, 2021

Mental Health – A Central Theme of SXSW 2021

Depressed man sitting

Each year, the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference puts Austin, Texas center stage as it gathers great creative thinkers and doers from around the world – and each year, Intouch is there (this year, of course, virtually). This post is part of our series on the major themes our team saw arising from the thousands of sessions and speakers talking about health, tech, creativity, and innovation at SXSW 2021.

“It’s a comorbidity of existence in a pandemic.” That’s how Intouch EVP Angela Tenuta described the mental health challenges we’ve all been weathering over the last year. Statistics bear this out. So, too, do the views expressed by the speakers and sessions at SXSW.

Studies show the damage being done to the public at large. A Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) report found that the percentage of American adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression quadrupled during the pandemic, from 11% to 41%. Worse yet, our most at-risk groups are being harmed most here, too.

  • People of color: Data have demonstrated that COVID-19 has disproportionately hit people of color in the United States. The racial injustice of the last year has, of course, also been traumatic. And statistics bear out the toll it is taking. In February, the CDC reported on “racial and ethnic disparities in the prevalence of stress and worry, mental health conditions, and increased substance abuse among adults during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
  • Elderly: The KFF noted, “the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the mental health of older adults is important to consider, particularly because of the increased rates of social isolation, loneliness, and bereavement that older adults may face due to the pandemic.”
  • Children: This week, NPR reported on clinicians finding that “the levels of distress, including suicidality, in their adolescent patients are among the highest they’ve seen in their careers” – “because the pandemic is making it hard for teenagers to meet basic developmental needs.”

From celebrities to healthcare workers to NASA, speakers across the week of SXSW addressed this. Olympic runner Alexi Pappas talked with comedian Bill Hader about “Becoming a Bravey,” her term (and book title) describing mental fortitude, and they compared notes on their personal struggles. In their session, “Pushing Our Bodies and Minds Beyond the Limits,” astronaut Bonnie Dunbar and sports psychologist Ryan Pittsinger talked about the challenges of staying healthy while isolated. A panel of experts in “Caring for the Caregiver: Are We Doing Enough?” discussed the particular challenges experienced by caregivers – both professional, and, as they put it, “recruited” loved ones, and how their challenges have grown over the past year.

But perhaps the most succinct summary came in the title of “The Looming Mental Health Crisis Tsunami.” This session included speakers from the American Medical Association, Columbia University’s division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the National Council for Behavioral Health. They discussed the shock, sadness, anxiety, and helplessness that we’ve all felt over the past year, and the effects that strain will have going forward.

The pandemic has been more widespread and enduring than any disaster in living memory. Even as we’re living with it in the moment, we can see the psychological effects it’s having on us, on our loved ones, and on society. We can predict the aftermath. But very little has, at yet, been done to ameliorate that.

How can healthcare help? Furthermore, what, specifically, can healthcare brands do to help ease the burden?

  • A stronger health infrastructure to support and offer mental health resources. As brands, we can seek to expand mental-health support in patient-care programs, and to provide new and stronger resources for patients, caregivers, and families.
  • A focus on science, rather than politicization, to guide these efforts. We can seek, compile, and analyze data on mental health concerns, just as we do with other aspects of our brand work. And we can work to remedy the trust gap that exists – within vaccine hesitancy, but with the pharmaceutical industry at large – with transparent, comprehensible, careful communication. As we heard in the session, “The Pulse on Trust and Global Health,” “on top of having a pandemic, we have an infodemic.”
  • Particular outreach to communities at most risk, such as people of color, young people, and the elderly. We can create new and better ways to specifically reach communities of color and begin to address the systemic lack of access to these types of tools and programs.
  • Move beyond fear-based marketing. While motivating people based on “FOMO” is a strategy old as the hills, these days, it hits a little different. When fear is ever-present and fully rational, it can be far more powerful to offer help, information, and solutions, rather than more worry.
  • Give our own creative efforts time. We are in an unusual situation in that we’re not just looking from the outside at patients affected by a condition – which is the normal situation for healthcare marketers. No one is not living through a pandemic right now. To do the best we can, we need to give ourselves the processes, allowances, and grace that will make it possible to still be brilliant, thoughtful, and creative. Our work matters, and it needs as much.
  • Look at our audiences differently. If you’re communicating to HCPs (or patients) the same way you did a year ago, without taking into account the emotional trauma and financial stress they may very well be under, you’re not thinking.

Healthcare requires authentic empathy, even at the best of times … and these are not the best of times. As the SXSW speakers put it: “It’s not mental health that’s fragmented. It’s not even healthcare that’s fragmented. It’s the world we live in. We have to bring people together.”

Authors: Sarah Morgan, consultant/writer; Hailey Allen, account supervisor.