Many of you reading this are communicators by trade, and it’s likely one-in-five of you have a mental illness like me, too.
The most common mental health conditions, like anxiety, depression, and substance use disorders, do not have a single reason for cozying up in our lives. I have had different triggers over the last decade that I’ve sought professional counseling for: from developing acute anxiety disorder after the death of both of my parents in my early 20s, a car accident, work burnout, to fear that I was developing the same neurological disorder I lost my mother to after falling during a yoga class.
Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor Charryse Johnson says the presence of difficult emotional states can provide us with valuable, often life-saving information.
“Emotions compel us to take an introspective look at the true level of functioning in our lives. Ignoring our mental health is an indirect form of self-sabotage, a pattern that turns our wall of protective bias into a fortress,” says Johnson.
My bereavement and mental health journey shifted my communications practice to one intrinsically focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). Here are four ways reflecting on adverse human experiences can help you be a more compassionate and inclusive PR practitioner:
- Words matter. Communicating honestly and truthfully about grief and trauma can lead to harm reduction. Societal platitudes (e.g., everything happens for a reason, it was their time, they are in a better place) exacerbated the isolation I felt when I was grieving. Challenging situations like death can leave even the most experienced communicators speechless, but it doesn’t change what horrible things can happen to others. Learn how to talk about the hard stuff (e.g., mental health, linguistic ableism, disabilities) because words can carry either healing or harmful consequences.
- Connect to your audience. While it is impossible to know every aspect of a person’s life and how they intersect, it’s essential to try. I love the Diversity and Inclusion Wheel for PR Practitioners created by Dr. Regina Luttrell and Dr. Adrienne Wallace to understand the barriers between my message and the recipient. For example, suppose you work in internal communications. In that case, you should be partnering with human resources to make sure that at the most basic level, the company is providing the right kind of resources and tools for employees to survive the most difficult moments of their lives. If they aren’t, it’s a huge miss, and most of your messages will not stick.
- Focus on need and purpose. Grief changed me and how I look at the big picture. I focus much of my research phase on identifying the underlying requirements for the service or product I am writing about and researching the behavior and result I want my message to evoke. For example, COVID-19 precaution messages in Spanish across North Carolina were sparse six months into the pandemic, which may have resulted in the Hispanic/Latinx population being infected at a disproportionate rate by June 2020. My purpose-driven strategy included adapting my pitches in Spanish and in-culture about topics important to our community that Hispanic/Latinx press could share with their readers alongside links resources for testing and safety measures.
- Invest in trauma-informed professional development. I recommend becoming certified in mental health first-aid, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and psychological first-aid. Trauma-informed training like the aforementioned helps supplement soft skills our technical training lacks. We use lessons from PR crises to help expand our practice. Why not include personal hardships to do the same? At its core, these courses will help you understand diverse and complex psychological needs, connect people to local resources, and deescalate a situation when someone is in distress. They include real-life crisis scenarios that should be part of both our DE&I efforts and service delivery. Expanding your trauma-informed knowledge can save someone’s life.
For every person who is visibly uncomfortable when I talk about my experience, be it my mental health or my parents’ death, there are so many others whispering, ‘thank you for sharing. I can relate.’
Lived experiences, including my grief and anxiety, are the root of building more authentic relationships, humanizing the stories I crafts, and serving as an advocate for herself and others.
Nathalie Santa Maria, APR, leads Sunnyside Communications, a minority and woman-owned public relations consultancy based in Charlotte, NC. She is also the founder and executive director of Leaves from Stella, a nonprofit that provides scholarships and a pen-friends program for young adults who have lost a parent or sibling. You can follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn @SunnysideNate.
Charryse Johnson, LCMHC, NCC is a speaker, consultant, and nationally certified counselor with over 15 years of experience. She is the founder of Jade Integrative Counseling and Wellness, a clinical practice that promotes mental health and well-being through integrative approaches backed by research and neuroscience. In Fall 2021, she will release her first book, Expired Mindsets: Releasing Patterns that No Longer Serve you Well.