COPH professor helps develop campus-wide initiative to increase male mental health literacy and help-seeking behaviors

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Chances are you’ve seen those billboards talking about an insurance plan that’s right for you. Or maybe you’ve passed the posters at the mall trying to convince you to buy the latest smartphone or pair of shoes.

Visual advertising is an effective marketing technique. But what if it was used, instead, to persuade us to make investments in our own mental health (MH)?

That’s what Dr. Rita DeBate, a professor of health education at the USF College of Public Health (COPH), is planning for when she kicks off a male mental health social marketing initiative this fall semester.

It’s part of the ongoing “Mental Well-being for Student Success” (aka MWell4Success), initiative that’s happening across the entire USF campus.

In a research study of mental health literacy and help-seeking behaviors among undergraduate (UG) and graduate (G) males enrolled at USF, DeBate and colleagues revealed statistically significant differences between UG and G males. UG males had lower mean scores for MH knowledge, MH attitudes, normative beliefs and the impact of help-seeking on self-confidence as compared to G male students. Further, undergraduate students were also observed with higher mean scores regarding self-stigma toward help-seeking and lower intentions to seek help than graduate participants.  

Qualitative data from interviews revealed that although male UG students could identify signs and symptoms of poor mental well-being, reported barriers to help-seeking included social stigma (family & friend’s perceptions; fear of losing friends; fear of being an outcast), self-stigma (sense of control; pride), and masculinity (gender norms).

As a result of the study, DeBate and colleagues developed and piloted a social marketing campaign aimed at increasing male usage of TAO (Therapy Assisted On-line) and Success & Wellness Coaching.  Pilot results revealed a surge in use among male students.

“Once we sent out the first marketing message for TAO, we had about 80 men go and use it on the second day,” said DeBate. “Based on the positive response to that, we are launching this men’s health initiative with the campus recreation center.”

But there’s a catch.

Instead of placing these posters in public areas, they will be located in more private settings―namely the men’s restroom stalls and urinals.

DeBate and her team will be placing posters like the one above in bathroom stalls and above urinals to increase male mental health literacy and health-seeking behaviors. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Rita DeBate)

“This will be another targeted approach focused around men’s health issues,” said DeBate. “There will be messaging [on the posters] to increase help-seeking behaviors, first on mental health issues and then moving into other health behaviors.”

The key to the initiative lies in giving men a private way to learn about and address any mental health issues they may be encountering. The privacy and location of the messaging, in addition to the de-stigmatized resources, aim to combat some of the reported barriers to help-seeking behaviors.

DeBate hopes the fact that these posters are in secluded and private areas means they will increase men’s comfort with mental health. “Men don’t want others to see that they’re getting help,” said DeBate. “They want to fix things themselves.”

“We want to eventually develop targeted programing for specialized groups of males, such as those in STEM fields, international students, athletes and those in the honors college, in addition to creating a Men’s Health initiative to include other aspects of health associated with well-being and student success,” said DeBate.

Story by Cody Brown, USF College of Public Health