Why mental health needs PR treatment

Claudia Barnett in Mind over Marathon
Claudia Barnett in Mind over Marathon

“Mental Health” is in the news at the moment, and for good reason.

Everyone has a mind, therefore everyone has mental health – but you’d be forgiven for thinking that such discourse is only relevant to you if you’ve been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

However, whether you’re a future PR professional or a seasoned Spin Doctor, I believe we all should be talking, if not shouting, about mental health, and taking leading role and responsibility in changing the reputation of mental illness.

As PR professionals we have the power to change dialogues, build reputations and shake up image. Mental health needs this treatment. In reporting, it’s often found sandwiched between the words “stigma”, “taboo”, “problem” and “illness”, not to mention the extremes when the term is used in headlines (I was resigned to being a “mental health patient” earlier in the year by the Mirror).

The treatment of mental health itself is bad enough, let alone those who both suffer and thrive with mental health conditions. A bout of depression on your record, and you are questioned about whether you should be working in a fast-paced environment. If you suffer anxiety, you’re asked if you should you be pitching today, or shall we ask your competitive colleague to take it off your plate?

Earlier in the year the PRCA released a study about how “mental illness in PR is ignored or seen as a performance issue”, and personally I find it hard to decide which is worse – health issues being ignored, or health issues being seen as an avoidable flaw.

Despite huge efforts from national charities like Heads Together, attention from the Royals, changes in equality and diversity policies, more education on the language used regarding mental health and non-stop media attention towards the issue, people that struggle with mental health issues are still being treated differently.

They are still being made to justify their illness, and they are still having to prove that mental health is just as valuable and worthwhile as physical health. They are still fighting to avoid being labelled as “crazy”, or “awkward” or “unstable”. Even Alan Partridge wouldn’t touch mental health; “That’s one charity I avoid, mental health. Don’t want to get tarred with the ‘mad’ brush” (although he can be forgiven for being fictional).

In my case, I want people to stop assuming my OCD means I’m faultlessly neat and tidy (I’m not), and I want them to stop using “OCD” as a way to describe their cute personality quirks such as colour coding or their love of symmetry.

Look at cancer, for example. The “C word” as it was often known, and feared. Terrifying, indeed. But now, those affected by cancer are empowered to share their stories, talk about their experiences and run the Race for Life, and rightly so.

There is no more “C word”- there is cancer, and we are addressing it directly. PR did that – maybe not through creative campaigns, press releases and events, directly – but by changing the way we think of something through conversation and raising awareness. Isn’t that what public relations is – awareness?

Although, I may be biased. At the age of 17, I was was diagnosed with “purely obsessional” OCD. The signs were there all along – uncontrollable worrying, obsessive rituals and crippling anxiety – but somehow, it still came as a surprise.

In the week leading up to my A Level exams, a pivotal point in any young, ambitious person’s life, I went from an outgoing, driven and confident young woman with an enviable childhood, to a permanently petrified shell of a person, not able to feed myself or wash, literally overnight. Intrusive thoughts had found me and suddenly, my life of carefree, teenage abandon was over, and I had no idea why.

If mental health had got the publicity treatment long ago, myself and many other might not have gotten so ill – prevention is the cure, after all, and knowledge is power. If we had talked about mental health, in the way we talk about checking for lumps and moles today, when I was younger, I know for certain I would have sought help sooner and got the treatment I needed, when I needed it.

I wouldn’t have spent four years at university justifying my mood or absence by feigning “headaches”, and I wouldn’t have had to avoid my colleagues due to uncontrollable panic attacks. Mental health needs a rebrand- it needs the “Share a Coke” treatment, or its own “Ice Bucket Challenge”. It needs to be talked about, understood and promoted.

Whether you are uncontrollably happy all of the time or consistently manically depressed (although, you’re probably somewhere in between), please think about mental health, of yourself and those you care about. The way you speak about it, the way you share it. Engage in some of the fantastic campaigns promoting mental health conversation at the moment – it’s PR related, so consider this an educational personal development task if you must – such as Heads Together’s #oktosay, Time to Change’s “Time to Talk”, or Mental Health Awareness Week (commencing 8th May).


This is an article by Claudia Barnett lives and works in Brighton as a travel publicist. Claudia was one of ten participants of the BBC documentary Mind Over Marathon which followed people with varying mental health issues as they trained for the London Marathon. Following the documentary, Claudia founded Quiet Club to further promote mental health discussions and empower people to share their stories without shame or censorship – you can also follow Quiet Club on Twitter.

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