My first job out of college was working for the New York state chapter of the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America, a trade association for insurance agents and brokers. One of the primary functions of the group was to advocate for the membership in Albany and Washington, to help pass favorable laws, to influence industry regulations and fight legislation and regulation that would harm the industry. There was also another association that did the same thing- the Professional Insurance Agents. While the IIABA and PIA were usually on the same page when it came to broad goals and member advocacy, they sometimes had differing strategies and priorities, they competed for membership, for funding, and for attention, both from their membership and from legislators, regulators and other industry groups. There were some state chapters that had merged their associations, and they didn’t seem to have many of the issues we would sometimes run into in New York. One organization meant one message, one strategy and one set of priorities.
When I look at the community of organizations involved in mental health advocacy, I see an even more fractured landscape, with multiple groups that have overlapping missions and I wonder, just how effective can they be?
Please don’t misunderstand this worry as an attack aimed at those involved in these groups- either the founders, the staff or the volunteers. I have a tremendous amount of respect and appreciation for their efforts to advocate on behalf of individuals and families that struggle with mental health issues.
But take the example of Bring Change 2 Mind, the campaign co-founded by actress Glenn Close to help reduce stigma and increase understanding of mental illness. They’ve partnered with football player Brandon Marshall’s Project357 for the #StrongerThanStigma campaign. Both organizations are about mental health awareness, and raise money that goes towards education, treatment and research. It’s an awesome and admirable goal. In fact, it’s a goal shared by the No Stigmas movement. And Conquer Worry. And Stamp Out Stigma. And Come Out of the Dark. And Stand Up for Mental Health. And Active Minds. In Britain you can find the Rethink campaign, in Canada it’s Let’s Talk. These are the organizations primarily centered around raising awareness and reducing mental health stigma. I’m sure there are some I’m not mentioning here. There are others that deal with advocating for mental health policy issues before Congress and state legislatures, like Mental Health America and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
My question for you is whether or not you can think of a single unifying campaign for mental health advocacy. I can’t. I’ll peruse Twitter and I can find at least half-a-dozen different hashtag campaigns. Which is the most effective? If you wanted to donate to one of these organizations, how would you choose? Or if you were a local community outreach program looking for support and funding for a school anti-stigma program? Or a resource for your college campus? Which of these organizations offer funding for those types of programs? Are they contributing to research grants for mental health professionals to learn more about depression, or anxiety or bipolar? Are they funding suicide and crisis hotlines? It’s confusing and can actually dilute the efforts these organizations are making.
I won’t pretend I know there’s an easy solution. Each organization has its stakeholders, whether it’s staff, sponsors, volunteers, etc. Many of them may have a niche that they serve- college students, veterans, or maybe family members of those coping with mental illness. But consider the overhead costs that could be saved if even some of these groups were to consolidate staff and offices. Think of the strength a unified strategy would have for public awareness. The pink ribbon for breast cancer is a powerful unifying symbol. Everyone knows what it is. What if there were a similarly powerful symbol for mental health? Unfortunately that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon with so many different groups out there promoting and pushing their own hashtag, their own wristband, or slogan.
Even as consolidation appears unlikely, maybe these groups need to get together for an annual conference to discuss a unifying campaign that they can each promote to their constituencies. A common agenda and an organized strategy would end up helping more people than these Balkanized efforts.
I’d love to hear some feedback on this, especially if you’re associated with one of these groups. Is it a concern you share? What are the things preventing groups from coming together? I want to hear from you!