FEATURE — Every year new public health media and messaging campaigns are launched not only in Southern Utah but throughout the state of Utah and address everything from underage drinking to adult suicide prevention. These campaigns focus on raising awareness and changing the attitudes in our communities to encourage healthy behaviors, but how effective are they?
Changing attitudes can sometimes be an ambitious goal, as prevention advocates must convince people, in the face of widespread product advertising, to change behaviors or eliminate the use of dangerous products. And these advocates must do so with few resources.
One way communities are able to share resources is through the organization of community coalitions. Southern Utah is lucky to have a well-functioning youth drug and alcohol prevention coalition in each of our five counties comprising representatives from various agencies and community organizations. Using shared youth-use data, these partnerships allow the coalitions to create a very targeted approach to reducing use and changing behaviors.
One strategy these coalitions use involves partnering creative messaging campaigns with other sometimes seemingly unrelated community entities.
For example, in 2015 the Iron County Prevention Coalition wanted to educate local parents on the importance of talking to their kids about the dangers of drinking underage. With the help of ParentsEmpowered.org, the coalition partnered with the Iron County School District and the Cedar City/Enoch waste departments to have messaging installed on garbage trucks and school buses.
“I love seeing the Parents Empowered garbage truck drive by my home by every week,” Iron County Prevention Coalition member BreAnn Veater said. “I especially love knowing that by being a part of the Iron County Prevention Coalition I was a part of this effort.”
In a similar example, the Panguitch Prevention Coalition in Garfield County wanted to remind local parents of the same important message. In small towns like Panguitch a great way to interact with parents is through local sporting events. With the help of ParentsEmpowered.org, the Panguitch coalition partnered with local sports team to get messaging on youth jerseys, team coolers and banners in the stadiums and ballfields.
Melissa Veater, a coordinator for Panguitch Prevention Coalition, said she thinks the message is even stronger because it isn’t limited to Panguitch.
“I love that as our teams travel the state for various sports, other communities see that underage drinking prevention is a priority in Panguitch,” Veater said.
These types of partnerships have been shown to prevent and reduce underage drinking in Utah, and youth use rates are continuing to decrease. And with this success, local coalitions are now posed to debut messaging relating to another type of campaign: suicide prevention and mental health. Navigating exactly how to relay information on such an emotionally charged subject can be a process, but folks throughout the state have come to the table ready for the challenge.
“Man Therapy” is one such campaign currently being used to raise awareness. In Utah, men have higher rates of suicide than the national average, so the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition decided to implement the Man Therapy campaign, which reshapes the conversation, using humor to cut through stigma and tackle issues like depression, divorce and even suicidal thoughts head-on, “the way a man would do it.”
Nationwide, suicide is the second-leading cause of death of youth aged 15-24, and as such, this age group has become a priority population to target with mental health messaging. One suicide prevention messaging study conducted using university counseling centers throughout the nation revealed that compared to students in controlled communities, students exposed to campaign messaging were more likely to refer a friend to the counseling centers for help, as well as being more likely to seek help for a mental health concern themselves.
Social media is another way local coalitions are changing attitudes and behaviors in their communities. By using social media outlets like Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat, coalitions are able to use messaging specific to issues in their communities. For example, if youth depressive symptoms are high in a particular area, the coalition might choose to share information on the SafeUT app, which has received more than 1,000 chats from Utah teens who reached out for help with depression, anxiety, self-harm or thoughts of suicide since the app’s launch.
A recent study in California reported the effectiveness of social media messaging on suicide prevention as well as discrimination and stigma reduction as part of a statewide mental health prevention program. The study showed that since the initiatives were launched, shifts in intended short-term outcomes such as knowledge and attitudes related to stigma and discrimination reduction, suicide prevention and general student mental health were evident.
Southern Utah coalitions continue to put out their messages, and once a campaign has been implemented, coalitions must then move their focus to evaluating it. They look at the reach of the campaign in their community, they survey their areas to measure changes in behaviors or attitudes and ultimately, they look for outcomes related to behavior changes, such as lowered rates of suicide attempts and higher rates of seeking treatment.
It can sometimes take years to see changes in the outcomes targeted by the coalition. However, anecdotal data about their messaging campaigns is also useful. Positive feedback about their efforts can be exactly what a coalition needs to maintain momentum while they wait. So the next time you’re out and about keep your eyes open in your county and see what messaging your community coalitions have prepared for you.
Written by HEIDI BAXLEY, Iron County Prevention Coalition coordinator, and LAUREN MCAFEE, Cedar City Library in the Park grant and development officer.
About the “Mind Matters” Series
As the Mind Matters series continues, we will highlight several Southern Utah mental health providers and organizations, as well as success stories, but if you or someone you know is seeking help or resources now, go to the following websites:
- Intermountain Healthcare St. George psychiatry and counseling.
- Dixie Regional Behavioral Medicine Unit.
- Cedar City mental health provider list.
If you or someone you know needs helps immediately, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or call 911. There is help and hope available.
St. George News “Mind Matters” series aims to illuminate how mental illnesses affect society and how to maintain mental health. Articles are contributed by Cedar City Library in the Park in partnership with the Iron County Prevention Coalition and will highlight available resources people may access in Southern Utah and online.
Read more: All the articles in the Mind Matters series
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