Columbia-based Horizon Foundation's new mental health campaign aims to be 'fun and edgy'

For The Baltimore Sun

Cartoons and clever word play are the key elements of a new Horizon Foundation campaign that aims to empower people to help others who struggle with mental health challenges.

“Emotional Support Human Etiquette” is a multimedia effort that’s a play on the role of emotional support animals and a tongue-in-cheek handbook of what constitutes good and bad human behaviors.

The Columbia-based health and wellness philanthropy is banking on the concept that making people chuckle will spur them to linger longer over ads, blogs and websites.

The hope is the “playful, yet practical tips” will make crafting a response more accessible to those who question how — or if — they should intervene.

“The goal of this fun and edgy campaign is to grab people’s attention,” said Nikki Highsmith Vernick, Horizon Foundation president and CEO. “We want to normalize conversations about mental health issues so people will seek treatment without fear of judgment.”

One in five adults face mental illness in America each year, she said, quoting a statistic from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which has a Columbia office.

“We all know someone in our lives — a friend, a family member, a neighbor — who is struggling with mental health, yet many of us are afraid of saying the wrong thing or making things worse,” Highsmith Vernick said.

“This new campaign shows that we can’t leave it all up to support dogs, peacocks and turkeys. They’re doing their jobs, and we as humans need to do ours and be emotional supports for each other.”

Launched in support of Mental Health Month, which has been observed nationally each May since 1949, the campaign will continue through 2019 and remain a component of Horizon’s five-year strategic plan through 2022.

The foundation has invested about $1 million in its various mental health initiatives, a spokesperson said.

The campaign features seven sets of illustrations that juxtapose two scenes: the first frames show silly humans engaging in bad pet behaviors and the accompanying cartoons in each series depict suggestions for alternative acts of human kindness.

The contrast between the thumbs-down and thumbs-up actions demonstrated by brightly colored figures with spindly legs relies on a lighter, less-preachy tone to help people see the value of showing even the smallest gesture of compassion.

“Walking across a computer keyboard: Irritating!” one drawing admonishes. (Though a human is depicted prancing on the keyboard, cat owners know who the real culprit in that scenario is.)

The companion cartoon states, “Talking a walk with a worried friend: Excellent!”

Another set shows a boy slurping from a toilet bowl like a dog and proclaims, “Drinking from the toilet: Wrong!” That’s paired with the suggestion, “Drinking coffee with a friend dealing with anxiety: Right!”

Glenn Schneider, chief program officer for the Horizon Foundation, said humor can be the best medicine for easing people into a new behavior.

“Animals are doing their job well; we want humans to do their jobs, though the evidence points to people being afraid to get started,” Schneider said.

While the hope is that the unconventional campaign will cause people to let their guard down and be more open to offering support, its message is rooted in a sobering reality.

More people with mental health issues are being seen for the first time at hospital emergency departments and nonprofit intervention centers when their problem has reached the crisis stage.

Highsmith Vernick said NAMI reports an average delay of eight to 10 years between onset of symptoms and treatment.

The hospital’s rate of emergency department visits due to mental health concerns has steadily increased since 2008, said Elizabeth Edsall Kromm, vice president of population health and advancement at Howard County General Hospital.

In 2018, HCGH logged 2,831 emergency department visits related to mental health conditions, she said.

In light of these trends, Horizon should be applauded for its unconventional approach, Edsall Kromm said.

“Levity lightens things up and allows people to engage,” she said. “They come to realize they don’t have to be experts and they won’t do any harm by talking to someone” about their mental health.

Another concern of the Horizon Foundation is the rising number of youths facing mental health challenges.

Highsmith Vernick said the organization has expanded its school-based intervention within the last six months.

During the first two weeks of April, the foundation sponsored four evening showings of the film “Angst” to nearly 1,500 people at Glenelg, Hammond, Howard and Mount Hebron high schools.

Featuring Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps, who went public in 2018 about his battle with depression, the documentary focuses on teenage anxiety and offers useful tools for dealing with mental health issues, Highsmith Vernick said.

Schneider said school health departments are proving to be a boon to getting students the care they need.

“Many kids are getting treatment at their schools because the setting breaks down barriers,” Schneider said.

Concerns about getting appointments are lessened when students are seen in their schools and children are put at ease because they’re in familiar surroundings, he said.

Highsmith Vernick said people can participate in the Emotional Support Human Etiquette campaign in three ways: adding an Emotional Support Human frame to their Facebook profile for the month of May, taking the online pledge to be an Emotional Support Human and spreading the word about the etiquette campaign on social media.

Tara DeCapite plans to do all of those things.

The Ellicott City resident and mother of four talks openly about her struggles with depression and has written about her experiences in a blog.

“When I spoke to a youth group at my church recently, kids came up to me afterward and asked what they should say to their friends,” she said.

DeCapite shared what she told them, adding her advice applies to everyone: "You don’t need to have the perfect words."

For more information or to sign a pledge, go to thehorizonfoundation.org or supporthuman.org.

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