PR Student: Annie Bartlett
This article was produced in cooperation with the COMMS 425 lab.
BYU public relations students joined three high school “hope squads” across Utah Valley this spring to help youth recognize the five signs of emotional well-being. The campaign that started out as a school project will have lasting effects on Utah teens’ conversations about mental health.
The PR students worked with high school counselors and student teams in an attempt to reverse the stigma surrounding mental health at Maple Mountain High School, American Fork High School and Springville High School.
Two youth are treated for suicide attempts every day in Utah, according to a recent article from Utah’s Health Department. As for college students, 12 percent of college freshmen say they are “frequently depressed,” according to a University of California, Los Angeles study.
BYU public relations students were assigned their capstone project by Dr. Christopher Wilson, assistant professor at BYU. Wilson mentored the students as part of the Bateman competition, a case study competition hosted by the Public Relations Student Society of America. Each year, small teams of four to five college students across the country research, plan, implement and evaluate a public relations campaign in their community that furthers the goals of a selected national initiative. The winning team’s tactics are then used across the nation to reach the campaign’s goals.
This year’s campaign, Campaign to Change, focused on informing America of the five signs of poor mental health. The project aimed to improve emotional health for an age demographic that students chose. The BYU students didn’t have to look far before finding alarming statistics about Utah teens.
Jordan Comstock is a BYU public relations student who worked on the campaign. His team started the campaign by asking, “how can we reach high school students?” The team brainstormed reaching students at home, sporting events, or through parents but none of those avenues looked promising. That’s when they found the hope squads.
Hope squads are state-mandated, peer-to-peer student mentoring teams, trained especially to help teens struggling with mental health issues or suicide. Each Utah high school has a hope squad that plans events during mental health week or “Hope Week.”
Comstock and his team collaborated with hope squads to take Hope Week from great to extraordinary. The public relations students found, through their own surveys, that 83 percent of high school students saw mental health as moderately or very important and more than 30 percent had spoken with someone about mental health in the past week; but only five percent could name two or more of The Five Signs.
The Five Signs are the recognizable characteristics, identified by Campaign to Change, that signal mental or emotional pain: personality change, agitation, withdrawal, poor self-care, and hopelessness.
The team wanted to help youth feel comfortable talking about mental health, something adults can find difficult to discuss.
So they made it cool. The students named their campaign “Filter Free” based on popular social media platforms Snapchat and Instagram. Both platforms feature filters that can be used to alter an image, often making it look better than reality. The high schools that partnered with the PR students accepted this theme for their upcoming Hope Week.
The Filter Free campaign included snapchat filters, video announcements, games during lunch, concerts by local YouTube sensation Maddie Wilson, an assembly with Olympian Kate Hansen, a performance by Utah Valley University drumline the “Green Man Group” and donuts, to name just a few.
Each of these tactics in the campaign was used to engage with high school students. The tactics helped to remind students of the five signs. During events, like the assembly with Kate Hansen, mental health was heavily emphasized. Students could get a donut after pledging to know The Five Signs. Video announcements that covered The Five Signs were broadcasted throughout each high school.
“Each week was packed with special events, social media posts and local celebrities,” said Kristi Hargiss, one of the students who worked on the campaign. “Coordinating everything as a team, with the high schoolers, school counselors and the local celebrities was work! But well worth it.”
The team set 4 major goals before the campaign:
- Increase the number of students that know and recognize the five signs of emotional suffering.
- Obtain 400 student pledges to know the five signs at each school.
- Spread awareness of the signs through geo-filters on Snapchat.
- Create a culture change at each high school by persuading the school to teach the five signs.
By the end of the campaign, the students not only reached all of their goals but had exceeded most by leaps and bounds. The percentage of high school students that could name The Five Signs went up 70 percent by the end of the campaign.
“It was very rewarding at the end to talk to the kids and hear that they felt much more comfortable talking about mental health after the campaign than they did before,” said Comstock.
The BYU students’ efforts were recognized on a national level. The story was picked up by Buzzfeed and Huffington Post as well as local station KSL-TV.
But more importantly, founder of the hope squad initiative Gregory Hudnall, got wind of their efforts. Hudnall promised to make changes to the way hope squads operate throughout Utah. In the future, Hope Week will leverage some of the strategies that Comstock and Hargiss’ team developed to change the conversation about mental health in Utah.