Health messages – necessary, but harmful for mental well-being?
Health messages are a crucial tool during health crises. For example, during the recent Covid-19 pandemic, they helped raise awareness about the risks and influence of the pandemic and informed about behavioral recommendations and regulations intended to minimize spread of the virus.
However, they can also be harmful. To illustrate the power of crisis messaging in an example, repeated media exposure to information about Boston bombing in 2013 led to higher levels of stress among recipients, than being present at the event itself.
Covid-19, low mental well-being, and role of health messaging
Several studies during the Covid-19 pandemic show that the mental well-being of people was severely under pressure, all around the world. They report higher levels of anxiety, psychological distress, depression, general dissatisfaction with life and unhappiness, amongst other things. While some of this can be attributed to the (uncertain) circumstances and restrictive regulations, it appears that crisis communication played a role as well.
For instance, higher exposure to information about the Covid-19 pandemic was associated with more stress, lower mental well-being, higher levels of anxiety and depression. But is it just how much someone follows information, or also what kind of information they follow, that can affect mental well-being?
It’s not how much, but what you watch!
In our literature review, we summarized what we know about specific message characteristics and their impact on mental well-being. We were also interested in how people with different levels of mental well-being before exposure to a message, process the information. For instance, does an anxious person process a message that includes graphic photos of dying victims of Covid-19, the same way, as someone who is not anxious?
What we found is alarming.
As we predicted, exposure to specific message characteristics might affect mental well-being. Particularly harmful were negative emotional messages, such as those attempting to evoke fear, shame, or guilt in recipients. Instead of just the desired emotion, we found that they impacted a wide array of negative emotions, including anger, wrath, torment, disgust, sadness, terror and even depression. We also found that more visual and realistic looking information might be harmful to mental well-being.
Lastly, we found that having lower mental well-being before exposure (in particular symptoms of depression or anxiety) does impact how one processes the message. Those with lower mental well-being from the start are likely to be affected more negatively by distressing messages. This is very problematic as it could lead to a negative spiral most harmful for those who are most vulnerable.
However, there was also a promising finding. Using humor in health messages could positively affect mental well-being.
Photo 1: A Covid-19 campaign advertisement in Australia
Based on our findings, we suggest that health messages are routinely tested by communication professionals before disseminated to the public, in order to ensure that they are not harmful for their mental well-being, in particular when communicating with vulnerable populations. We also suggest that future research focuses on identifying message characteristics that could be used to raise mental well-being while still being effective, as these do seem to exist.
Photo 1: A Covid-19 campaign advertisement in UK
You can read more about my projects here: https://www.uva.nl/en/profile/d/o/s.dolinsek/s.dolinsek.html#Ancillary-activities
Špela Dolinšek is a PhD candidate at University of Amsterdam, researching the relationship between exposure to specific health messages and mental well-being, under supervision of Prof. Julia van Weert, Prof. Bas van den Putte, Dr. Corine Meppelink and Dr. Christin Scholz.