The University Network

Youth Culture Could Change Stigma Of Mental Illness

Depression in young people, both adolescents and college students, is on the increase.

Unfortunately, many of them remain undiagnosed and untreated. This is largely due to the stigma associated with mental illness.

Recognizing the need to address this, the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health launched a campaign to promote community engagement with mental health issues and to create an advocacy movement for well-being and better access to mental health treatment.

Called WhyWeRise, the campaign is aimed at young people, 14-24.

This campaign was effective in reaching its targeted audience, according to an assessment by the RAND Corporation, a non-profit research organization.

Overall, RAND found that young people who were exposed to the event were more likely to express support toward people with mental illness, suggesting that targeting youth culture might be the appropriate route when it comes to mental health advocacy.

The evaluation paper can be found here.


Launched in May, the campaign was a part of the county’s prevention and early intervention efforts supported by the Mental Health Services Act, which was passed in 2004 as a tax on high income residents to support mental health education and services.

While most of the funds support treatment for people with mental health illness, a portion is set aside for early intervention and prevention.

At the center of the WhyWeRise campaign was the WeRise event, an immersive experience that ran in downtown LA for three weeks.

During that time, WeRise visitors could engage with an art gallery, rally, performances, panel discussions and workshops about mental health issues.

“WhyWeRise is a very unique approach to addressing disparities in use of mental health care,” said Rebecca L. Collins, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND and the study’s lead author.

“There have been several major social marketing and media campaigns addressing stigma and other reasons that people fail to get help for mental health problems, but as far as I’m aware, no one has ever used a youth engagement campaign to solve the problem.”

RAND evaluation

RAND evaluated the campaign by conducting interviews with people who attended the events, as well as issuing an online survey of 1,000 young people from LA County and analyzing Twitter data from LA users on topics of mental health before and during the campaign.

“It was important for LA County to learn whether their activities reached people and are effective so that they can make decisions about continuing and maybe revising the campaign,” Collins explained.

“And many mental health problems emerge at young ages, so if the approach LA County used works, it might help others to address this problem in other counties and across the nation,” she continued.

The online survey found that one in five young people were aware of WeRise and WhyWeRise within just a few weeks of the campaign launching.

Additionally, the survey found that youth who reported being exposed to the campaign were more aware of the challenges associated with mental health illness and information on how to get help with mental health challenges.

The survey also found that discussion of WeRise was frequent within a Twitter community that talked about common mental health topics.

“The thing that surprised us was how successful the campaign was in reaching such a large percentage of youth in LA County so quickly,” Collins said.

“We evaluated the effort only a few months after it began, and found one in five youth had heard about it. That’s very unusual for social marketing campaigns. It might be that the strategy of engagement is really attractive to youth, so word of mouth got around fast, or it might be that the campaign was just very good at getting their message out through social media.”

Room for improvement

While the evaluation suggests that the WhyWeRise campaign was successful overall, RAND suggests that more can be done to reach a wider audience.

“RAND suggested that they try to reach a slightly younger audience, reach more young men, and also those who don’t already have some kind of ties to mental health issues,” Collins said.

“Those groups weren’t as likely to have heard about the campaign, and of course they have mental health problems or know people who do, so including more of them would help to boost the impact of WhyWeRise.”

RAND has no plans to continue studying WhyWeRise, but the nonprofit organization has suggested that the county should continue with some form of evaluation, according to Collins.

“When campaigns wind down or reduce their outreach, any shifts in attitudes and beliefs return to where they had been prior to the effort. And conversely, when campaigns continue and expand, that typically maintains changes and also brings them to a broader group of people,” Collins said.