These days, I spend a reasonable amount of time thinking about the future and planning for the person I want to be. I find it emotionally reassuring, even if it serves as simply a general roadmap for my aspirations. On this subject, Joanne Lipman has written an excellent article recently, ‘Want to Make a Change? Conjure Your ‘Possible Selves.’
Ironically, one of the most successful mental health campaigns in recent history asked prominent individuals to look back in time. It was an anti-stigma campaign called #MyYoungerSelf, published by the Child Mind Institute and launched May 1, 2017. Between 2017–2020 — during National Mental Health Awareness Month — the campaigns were featured on ABC’s Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, Today, and covered by more than 675 media outlets worldwide.
The #MyYoungerSelf campaign reached 526 million+ through social media and garnered over 9 billion impressions in just 93 days, collectively. Participating celebrities included Margot Robbie, Zoe Saldana, Mayim Bialik, Kristin Bell, Jonah Hill, Emma Stone, Keke Palmer, Sarah Silverman, Gillian Anderson, Bill Hader, Octavia Spencer, Jim Gaffigan, Sugar Ray Leonard, Idina Menzel, and Mark Ruffalo, among many others. In total, the campaign included more than 125 influencers telling compelling video stories about an emotional or mental health struggle in their past.
Large retail and media companies with iconic brands soon launched similar public campaigns for mental health. On TV commercials, Michael Phelps, a participant of #MyYoungerSelf, launched his own for-profit telehealth service with the opening line, “If I could speak to my younger self.”
Stigma is the great barrier to success toward improving mental health. That year at the Child Mind Institute, we wanted to let anyone who was suffering know that they are not alone. But driving a national discussion is easier said than done. How could we advance the organization’s mission to engage, inform and inspire more young people to reflect on their mental health and take an action toward better self-care, or even seek professional treatment? How could we elevate the brand and amplify the voice of the organization during the month-long celebration in May? Most importantly, our resources were limited. How could we do this in a way that delivered maximum yield for minimal investment?
The answer was to work with trusted messengers who already had an established brand and platforms with large followings — online influencers, prominent personalities and celebrities — those who could help spread the campaign message and call-to-action. We decided to research and develop a list of prospective influencers who had struggled with a mental health disorder in their youth, before age 25, to speak in a short one-minute testimonial video that could be recorded with their phone. What would each person tell their “younger self” as they reflected? What was their experience like? What did they do that helped them cope or recover? And what would they tell other young people going through a similar crisis?
Our goal was to acquire and publish one influencer video per day throughout the month of May, or 31 content assets. We determined that it would be important to have many audience demographics represented, so we researched influencers from every walk of life: authors, athletes, actors, musicians, academic leaders, mental health advocates and digital influencers, business leaders and even politicians. We created video guidelines to help the campaign participants create their one-minute video. We made the upload accessible and easy, and we edited the content submissions and packaged each video with captioning and a branded end-slate, including call-to-actions.
To amplify the campaign reach, we asked the talent or their publicists to post their finished video natively, or to repost from our platforms to their social pages on the same day that the video was being published and released to media outlets by the Child Mind Institute.
Through our PR firm, we pitched and secured media coverage with agreements to hold the video under embargo until a specific day and time. Audiences for media outreach were appropriately designed and targeted according to each personality: sports media for athletes, or entertainment and music media for musicians. One poignant video story from a vulnerable A-list celebrity sharing their experience with anxiety, depression or another disorder — published on People.com or other large consumer media website — sent the campaign into the stratosphere, and raised the brand of the organization beyond what we ever imagined.
The cost of the campaign was nominal and amounted mostly to talent booking fees for the recruiters. However, it required an enormous amount of time researching, creating guidelines, cultivating leads for more than 400 talent prospects (including several tiers of outreach) to recruit talent and acquire the video assets. Expect a modest 5–10 percent conversion of participants. The effort also included developing branded campaign toolkits for our peer partners to co-publish.
It became clear that in order to sell big personalities into the campaign, we needed at least one big name to commit first. Influencers are solicited several times daily with these types of offers, and online influencers often earn their living through compensation for endorsements. We also encountered the problem of public stigma even as we sought to secure the talent, who were understandably concerned about coming out in such a public way to speak about a debilitating mental health crisis.
It was important to engage each influencer in a relevant way about the disorder or crisis they had faced. We wanted to present the opportunity to help others who were struggling through fostering an unscripted, unrehearsed account. #MyYoungerSelf represented a partnership in the truest sense: our organization facilitated their ability to tell and publish their stories in the common spirit of raising awareness and helping young people. The video needed to be open and honest in order to capture the authentic value of a shared human experience.
It also became clear that, as an organization and communications team, we needed to plan for the formidable investment this initiative required. Something this ambitious, at this scale and with this type of business ROI, required at least six months to develop landing pages and resources, create and curate content, and also manage the existing communications work that consumed our daily routine.
Each year, as blooming flowers signal the beginning of National Mental Health Awareness Month, we are graced by the wondrous creativity of various public education campaigns from mental health advocacy organizations. The success of the #MyYoungerSelf campaign stemmed from raw, resonant stories of the past, shared by well-known individuals. I wonder how the campaign would be received if it was adapted to look at the future.
A psychiatrist once told me to focus on the vision of the person that I wanted to become. Once I had a clear understanding of what that meant, how would I go about growing into that best version of myself? In this way, I could begin reasoning through the process using my prefrontal cortex, the executive functioning center of my brain — as opposed to acting out or behaving based on my fleeting mood in any given moment (courtesy of my limbic system). Our feelings are transient, and not always very dependable. But human action toward achieving a designated result, a deliberate future goal, is more reliable. One needs only to have a clear definition of that desired outcome.
It would be interesting to hear those kinds of stories — short video expressions from successful personalities and influencers. This time, we could watch and listen to a hopeful vision of their future self, a version they aspire to, and are working to become.
We might even call it #MyPossibleSelf.