While it’s normal for teenagers to feel insecure and angsty, suicide rates and major depressive episodes have spiked in recent years. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young adults, and the 10th leading cause of death overall in the United States, data from the CDC and the National Institute of Mental Health revealed.
In January, the Ad Council, the Jed Foundation and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (ASFP) launched a new campaign called Seize The Awkward, hoping to empower teenagers and young adults (16-24 years old) to open up about their mental health. The project, @seizetheawkward, also tries to de-stigmatise the topic of suicide by encouraging friends to talk to each other about their well-being – even if it means feeling uncomfortable at first.
The problem: From a young age, we smile when people ask us how we’re doing. Even if we’re having a bad day, we say we’re doing great. It’s a social norm that’s prevented many people from seeking treatment for mental health issues, and its effects are only catching up to us now: According to the NIMH, the percentage of adults having serious suicidal thoughts was highest among those aged 18-25, with white males representing the most vulnerable demographic.
The approach: The commercial features Broadway actor Gideon Glick who plays the role of ‘an awkward silence’ to remind viewers of the awkward space between friends talking about mental health. Seize The Awkward also outlines a handful of resources – from warning signs and conversation starters to talking points and how to best follow up.
It starts with asking yourself the question: “Is your friend going through a tough time?” There are a number of signs to watch out for that may help your answer: Are they harming themselves? Are they acting erratic or irrational? Do they appear aloof, pessimistic or isolated? Are they so anxious they can’t relax? Are they taking drugs or drinking more alcohol than usual? Do they feel hopeless? These are a few examples the website highlights, adding that it’s always best to trust your gut. “If something seems wrong, ask.”
While many feel uneasy about bringing the subject up, the project makes sure to include personal anecdotes from people who know how it feels to be approached. Video confessionals from actors and tv personalities like Tyler Posey, YouTuber Liza Koshy, Hannah Hart and Remi Cruz, share how reaching out, listening, and trusting your instinct can make a difference in mental health. They also solicited complementary artworks for the campaign name “Seize The Awkward” from artists and graphic designers like Rudi de Wet or Joseph Alessio for whom the issue hit close to home.
If you’re still struggling with what to say, the Seize The Awkward website also includes examples of icebreakers to get the conversation going: “Hey, we haven’t talked in a while. How are you?”; “Are you OK? You don’t seem like yourself lately”; “I know you’re going through some stuff; I’m here for you” or “Maybe it’s me, but I was wondering if you were all right.”
As for what to say and how to act during your talk, the best advice is to simply be a friend. Don’t try to be an expert. Let them open up to you at their own pace, and listen to what they have to say. This also means avoid trying to offer any advice. Let them know it’s okay to feel the way that they do, and that you’re there to support them with whatever they need.
Now that you’ve ‘seized the awkward’, the final step is to follow up. Make sure to check in with them, and invite them to go out, even if they say no. Ask for outside help if you need extra advice. And most importantly, respect their privacy and feelings by not talking about them behind their back.
The feel good: Lindsey Sherman, President of The Ad Council said, "This campaign gives young adults the tools and specific language they need to embrace the critical moment of an awkward silence in a way that could have a life-saving impact." While suicide and mental health are difficult subjects to talk candidly about, the campaign touches on something both personal and symbolic: We all have, or know somebody who has, felt hopeless once. But creating a safe space among friends can make a world of difference.