Taking place between the 18th and 24th of May, the UK’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which aims to get people speaking about their mental wellbeing, came at a timely moment in 2020. Weeks of isolation and mass job losses due to COVID-19 have fuelled a widespread sense of anxiety and raised concerns about the long-term psychological effects of the pandemic. Indeed, research from early May estimated that up to 23 million Britons may be struggling to cope mentally during lockdown, while in the US, roughly 70% of people experienced moderate to severe mental distress in April – three times higher than the proportion recorded in 2018.
From ‘recharge rooms’ in hospitals to free behavioural coaching for frontline workers to dedicated helplines (some of which have seen an 891% year-on-year increase in call volume), various outlets for emotional support have been made available during this trying time. But what makes for a truly comforting experience for those in need? “It’s not about telling a distressed person how to feel, like 'don't take it so hard' or 'don't think about it,'” explains Xi Tian, a graduate assistant in communication arts and sciences at Penn State University, referring to a study she co-authored called ‘How the Comforting Process Fails: Psychological Reactance to Support Messages’. “It’s about encouraging them to come to their own conclusions about how to change their feelings or behaviours.” Canvas8 spoke to Tian to find out what successful support looks like and how brands can step in to help.
Why is this topic important to understand?
We're all coping with uncertainty and significant losses during the pandemic. People are going through a lot of stress, like a job loss and the death of loved ones. It's a crucial time for us to get together and think about how we can cope. It’s becoming particularly important to think about the types of messages we give to loved ones to support them.
We know that support can help people manage and cope in a stressful situation. We also know that social support can produce a lot of positive outcomes. For example, it can help make the other person feel better about a situation, improve psychological and physical wellbeing, and help build interpersonal relationships. But in this study, the question we were trying to address was why well-intentioned support efforts may not be perceived as sensitive and helpful. Essentially, how does the comforting process fail?
To do that, we integrated a theoretical framework on persuasion and social influence to help us understand how people resist social support. Social support could, potentially, become counterproductive when people give support messages because it can threaten people's freedom to choose how they manage a stressful situation. At the same time, we are starting to see evidence suggesting that well-meaning but insensitive social support can be counterproductive – it can reduce people's self-advocacy to manage their situation and intensify their psychological distress.
David Billings (2020) ©
How did you go about conducting your study?
For the first study, we recruited married adults who were experiencing a disagreement with their spouse. We conducted an online experiment asking participants to identify one person in their social network with whom they had discussed their marriage and/or spouse. Then, we asked them to imagine having a conversation about a recent or resolved disagreement with the person they identified.
After that, participants were presented with one of six support messages. We manipulated these messages based on how well they validated, recognised, and acknowledged the other person's emotions, feelings, and experiences. This was done by controlling their level of person-centredness. Messages designed to lower person-centredness explicitly criticised, denied, or challenged the other person's feelings or emotions, and also told them how they should act or feel. Meanwhile, messages aimed at heightening person-centredness explicitly recognised the other person's feelings, explored why those feelings might be experienced, and helped them understand their situation better.
After participants received one of those six messages, they were asked to evaluate the support they received across a number of metrics – on things like emotional improvement and perceived threat to freedom. Ultimately, we want to see how people react to different types of personal messages and why some work and some don't.
Walter Randlehoff (2020) ©
What were your key findings?
We found that messages that explicitly recognise, validate, and help people better understand their situations partly reduced the emotional distress. These messages allow people to talk about their emotions and identify what is particularly stressful. Through this process of putting an emotional experience into words, we found that people assessed the nature of the event and thought about the relevance of the situation to their wellbeing. We also found that this process is ongoing and people have to continually engage with it. But through having conversations with loved ones, people can develop a better understanding of a situation, what they're feeling, and why. That's essentially what support is all about – by talking about feelings, people gain a better degree of awareness of their situation.
We also know from the research that advice and adverse situations could potentially produce a prime opportunity for positive growth and change. When we are going through these tough times and dealing with all sorts of losses, we have to let people grieve. We have to acknowledge that grief is a normal part of the process of coming to terms with significant losses. Messages that focus on expressing sympathy and ask relevant questions can work well when people are going through significant stress. Highly personal messages may not always work as well, but I think listening and letting the other person voice their feelings is effective.
From a consumer point of view, it’s about the degree of assurance behind messages of personal support. I've been getting emails from airlines and big companies saying how ‘we're all in this together’ and ‘we're willing to be there for you’, which feels like their way of giving emotional support. But how do you convey continual care and sympathy to consumers who are going through a tough time?
@gal_gadot | Instagram (2020) ©
Insights and opportunities
- While a greater appreciation for emotional intelligence has been on the rise for years, the pandemic is shining a brighter light on its value. Widespread lockdown measures have left many people living in isolation, which is having a negative impact on their mental health. Some people may be reaching out to loved ones through remote movie nights and Houseparty festivals, but that’s not true of everyone. And there are key differences in people’s willingness to both give and receive emotional support – research finds that under periods of daily stress, women are more likely than men to both give and receive emotional support.
- Emotional support systems are important in all relationships, not just romantic ones as the study investigated. During the pandemic, experts suggest that they may be especially important for Gen Zers, who perhaps haven’t learnt to cope with feelings of unrest or uncertainty. In a survey conducted at the end of March 2020, 63% of 13- to 17-year-olds in the US said they were worried about how the crisis would impact their family’s ability to earn a living, with just 16% saying they’d received emotional support from others online. In this light, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris – the author of The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity and an authority figure on preventing long-term trauma for kids – encourages parents and children to take part in ‘stress-busting’ activities together. Meanwhile, with playtime being limited to the home, brands are stepping in with screen-free toys and educational support for parents to help children make sense of the pandemic.
- COVID-19 has seen various public figures attempt to provide emotional support to those struggling to get by. Gal Gadot and Madonna have been among the celebrities and influencers to weigh in on the crisis, yet many are receiving backlash due to their ‘out-of-touch’ communications. Though well-intentioned, these messages fail to acknowledge how lockdown life for the privileged is vastly different from lockdown life for everyone else. After all, emotional support isn’t just about what’s being said, but also about how it’s said. There’s an opportunity for brands to acknowledge and empathise with people’s unique realities in more useful ways than simply saying ‘we’re all in this together’. Take Natura &Co’s #IsolatedNotAlone campaign in Brazil as an example, which focuses on building awareness of the rising problem of domestic violence in lockdown, while also offering practical interventions to support sufferers.
- Supportive communication is often thought of as a two-way conversation, but there’s more to be said for non-verbal, solo activities that can help people help themselves. With research from March/April finding that 55% of US adults felt the pandemic has affected their mental health, tech-aided support may prove essential to tackle the mental health crisis that’s emerging off the back of COVID-19. Apps like Calm, Headspace, and Day One are offering tools for introspective emotional support (e.g. journaling, guided meditation) to help people get through self-isolation.