Harvard University is partnering with a team of TikTok and Instagram creators and influencers to engage the public in two-way conversations about mental health.
“It was amazing to see how thoughtful and creative all the participants in the mental health creator program were and what a good job they wanted to do,” said Amanda Yarnell, senior director of the Center for Health Communications at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The center has long worked with traditional news organizations to share public health messaging. Focusing on social media was a way for the center to reach a wider audience in a fractured media landscape.
“Too often public health experts create content that reflects how they would want to receive it,” said Yarnell. “Creators understand how to be authentic and engage people on these platforms. We can’t underestimate the impact that can have on heart and minds.”
Mental health was selected by Harvard as the first theme to test, with an eye towards crafting a template for other topics. “There is a lot of mental health content in social media, some good, some anecdotal, and some simply not good at all,” Yarnell said. “Mental health is a huge public health crisis, and we saw an opportunity to tap into the expertise at Harvard.”
More than 100 mental health creators were vetted. The focus was on recruiting influencers over age 18 who were creating content in English (but not necessarily based in the U.S.), and who had a minimum of 15,000 followers.
Harvard also prioritized reaching out to marginalized groups public health has struggled to reach, such as creators of color or LGBTQ+ creators. .
They also wanted to include creators who spoke frankly about serious issues such as suicide and who created relatable content based on their own lived experience.
One such creator is Kate Speer, a Norwich, VT-based mental health advocate. When she first joined social media more than a decade ago, it was simply a way to stay in touch with college friends. She quickly pivoted to sharing her own struggles with mental health, including agoraphobia, social anxiety disorders, and PTSD.
“I always say that when I share my vulnerability it sets me free, even though family members worried it would ruin my reputation,” said Speer, currently on sabbatical from her role as CEO of The Dogist. “But the messages I got kept me going. It felt like I was opening a door to other people with similar experiences and making a difference.”
Out of the pool of 100 creators vetted, about 30 were put in a control group and never contacted. Of the remaining creators, 42 agreed to participate and a random group of 25 was selected. They were engaged in a series of virtual conversations on topics such as emerging mental research, public health policy, and how to evaluate and share evidence-based information.
Creators were then given tool kits summarizing the themes discussed. Creators who did not participate in the conversations also received the tool kits. No money changed hands, and there were no specific requirements on how or if they used the information.
Yarnell said Harvard was pleased with the results of the 2023 trial of the program, summarized in the paper “Influencing the Influencers.”
“We saw that connecting creators to evidence does increase the amount of mental health content they create, and the content received significant views,” she said.
There have also been tangible results beyond social media statistics. Through the program, Speer connected with Harvard professor Bryn Austin, and the two teamed up to create content about the risks of over-the-counter weight loss supplements.
In October, Speer asked her followers to send messages to New York Governor Kathy Hochul, encouraging the governor to sign a bill limiting the sale of such supplements to minors. The effort was successful and Hochul signed the bill.
This year, Harvard expects to scale the program with additional online briefings and tool kits, and plans to encourage more creators to sign up to participate.
Creators have also been pleased with the partnership. “Having Harvard’s stamp of approval on information that it is applicable and backed up by citations offers a level of assurance that is transformative in public health communication,” Speer said. “It is helpful to have Harvard standing behind the information we are disseminating.”
Speer is in talks to work on a similar initiative with faculty from Dartmouth College and the University of Vermont.
“My hope is that alliances like this help people like me. In this broken system, we need all the help we can get,” she said. “There are millions of people who want to do good on these platforms, but we endlessly fall short.”