Imagine a virtual room of social media influencers tasked with discussing mental health and well-being.
Depending on how you feel about the influencer economy, you might be curious or cynical. Such a meeting could be just another photo op for a timeline that needs a touch more sincerity or vulnerability. Or it could be a chance to harness social media platforms for good by sparking stigma-free conversations about mental health. It might even amount to nothing at all.
Held this summer, that digital gathering was in fact a multi-week training for 100 influencers who collectively reach 110 million people on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. Participants included the comedian Tre Melvin, model and scientist Megan Pormer, and poet Mahogany Browne.
The training is an ongoing effort by HBO, the mental health organization Active Minds, and the professional network Kindred to de-stigmatize talking about issues like anxiety, depression, and suicide. The new course offers a certification to content creators, and the goal is for them to responsibly address mental health through sharing their own experiences, responding thoughtfully to commenters, posting resources, and using appropriate language.
“I wasn’t trained in this space before [the certification],” says actress Kat Graham, whose Instagram account alone has 5.6 million followers.
Graham participated in the course as one of the co-founders of a wellness company called Modern Nirvana. The trio wanted to launch the company confident in their ability to talk about mental health. For a long time, Graham had also felt unprepared to respond to comments and DMs from her fans about their own emotional well-being.
“I want to be a support system, and not just cut and paste a hotline number.”
“I found myself getting questions that I did not have the tools to answer,” she says. Graham also yearned to engage on a deeper level: “I want to be a support system and not just cut and paste a hotline number. I want to be a voice of love and comfort for my audience.”
The certification taught Graham about language to avoid, like “the weather is so bipolar” and “she looks crazy,” because it creates or reinforces negative associations with people who experience mental health conditions. Graham, who has not personally lived with a mental illness, says the training provided helpful insight.
The three-part course starts with “mental health 101,” which includes an overview of statistics, myths and misconceptions, and the range of conditions. Then participants receive guidance on how to identify and respond to someone who is struggling. Finally, they learn about how to share personal stories about their mental health and the importance of including resources in such posts. The digital training is now available for any content creator who applies and is accepted.
Laura Horne, who co-led the training and is the chief program officer at Active Minds, says she hopes the “influencers can help normalize the conversation of mental health.”
That’s an ambitious goal given social media stars must often appear authentic while also occasionally surprising their followers in order to stay relevant. That can lead to missteps when talking about anything, much less mental health. Living their lives online also takes a toll. It’s easy to imagine a weary and exhausted social media star with good intentions inadvertently posting something controversial or self-serving. Less frequently, influencers adopt a downright offensive or appalling approach to the subject.
That’s what happened in 2018, when YouTube personality Logan Paul posted a video that mocked suicide and showed graphic imagery of a purported suicide. The backlash was swift. Within weeks, Paul uploaded a new video, featuring prevention experts and a suicide attempt survivor, as a corrective apology.
Yet stars like Logan, whose second video was watched more than a million times in a few hours, wield powerful influence over public conversations about mental health.
Horne says the training is designed to put influencers at ease by giving them basic information, skills, and messaging to start a respectful conversation. Otherwise, Horne says that those worried about making a disastrous mistake might not say anything at all.
“You don’t have to be an expert to help, or a pseudo-clinician,” says Horne. “You don’t have to know everything to be able to elevate a mental health conversation on your platform.”
Trainees are taught to talk about mental health challenges as normal and treatable. They also get experience in how to share a personal story based on their own boundaries and those of their followers. They’re encouraged to give their platform to someone else with lived experience so they don’t always have to be the storyteller. The training is clear that influencers may be taking a risk when disclosing their mental health issues and offers participants ready-made responses to deflect criticism.
Horne says that if influencers who’ve completed the training subsequently publish insensitive or egregious content, the team will likely reach out in a friendly manner to offer advice or suggestions, or to re-share the toolkit from the training.
After Joél Leon completed the certification, the author and performer posted on Instagram about his mental health journey, which has included suicidal thinking. Leon says the response to his post was overwhelmingly supportive.
“I’ve been able to cultivate a very positive community, especially as a Black man sharing his story,” says Leon. “I’ve been blessed and fortunate enough to have a decent-sized platform, knowing my voice has resonance. That’s given other people the opportunity to [share] on their own terms, for themselves.”
While he had considerable professional experience working on issues related to mental health, Leon says the course offered important reminders of how to lead public conversations about the topic while creating a “safe space” that invites people of all backgrounds to engage.
Horne understands the skepticism of anything that brings influencers attention, but she believes in their potential to shape the way the public thinks about mental health.
“People recognize authenticity, they know the difference,” says Horne. “[This is] not just another promotion. It’s more meaningful than that. It’s actually a vehicle for connection.”
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, Crisis Text Line provides free, confidential support 24/7. Text CRISIS to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor. contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. ET, or email email@example.com. Here is a list of international resources.