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Changing minds: the ABC's mental as campaign.


The ABC's Mental As campaign was a huge endeavour for the public-service broadcaster. Held from 5 to 12 October last year, it featured a variety of programs across platforms and genres that 'challenged the stigma and started a national conversation about mental health'. (1) Mental As was developed by the ABC following a joint campaign by producer/writer/presenter Andrew Denton, psychiatrist and 2010 Australian of the Year Patrick McGorry, and economist David Bassanese. Writing for The Australian Financial Review, Bassanese explained the idea behind the campaign, recounting his experiences with his young daughter Camille and pinpointing how he was struck by the lack of existing research into and understanding of her condition and treatment. He was moved to try and do something to address this:

As a child of the 1970s, I remembered fondly the many telethons that TV stations used to host. One day it struck me that maybe a telethon for the broader issue of mental health would help raise money for research and increase awareness and acceptance of mental health issues. (2)

The resulting event included a diverse selection of television programs, daily radio events across stations, and the online special Speak Your Mind, delivered via the ABC Open crowd-sourced platform. On the Monday after Mental As first aired, the ABC reported that '[o]ne in four Australians tuned in to [...] this landmark week of programming.' (3) Following the campaign's conclusion, ABC managing director Mark Scott said Mental As was 'ambitious' but also 'exactly what a public broadcaster should be about, giving a platform to a national conversation'. (4)

Why only now?

Representations of mental illness have featured in popular media since at least Shakespeare's time; (5) however, sustained, informed and unbiased accounts are only relatively recent. In the lead-up to Mental As, Leo Burnett CEO and The Gruen Transfer panellist Todd Sampson told News. that '[t]here's no doubt there's a communication issue when it comes to mental illness. The words we use, the way we address it, people's inability to talk about it'. (6) Indeed, the 'communication issue' around mental health is complex. In unfavourable cases, mental health has been denied as legitimate, with those suffering being stigmatised or ostracised. It's a problem that mental-health organisations like SANE Australia are continuing to fight, with initiatives like the 2013 YouTube campaign 'A Life Without Stigma' directly seeking to redirect communication towards assistance rather than isolation. (7)

At their worst, insensitive media reports can be significant threats for individuals already in distress. In a 2013 paper, University of Melbourne researchers Anna Machlin, Jane Pirkis and Matthew J Spittal discuss how the reporting of suicides has been linked to copycat acts of self-harm by audience members at risk. They relate this phenomenon back to 'a spate of suicides that occurred in Europe after Goethe published The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774', and note that, in light of findings that support the existence of what is now known as the 'Werther effect', 'many countries have developed guidelines to encourage responsible media reporting of suicide'. (8) Ultimately, the researchers emphasise that 'the media has an important role to play in educating the community', and argue that inaccurate reportage 'can be counterproductive in that it can lead to skewed public understanding'. (9)

In the last few years, the media has more presciently acknowledged its responsibilities with regard to mental health, supported in part by initiatives like the federal government's Department of Health-funded outlet Mindframe. The site describes itself as a 'National Media Initiative' designed to provide 'access to up-to-date, evidencebased information to support the reporting, portrayal and communication about suicide and mental illness', (10) and offers resources for media, stage and screen professionals, as well as for universities, court reporters and the police. A key part of these is a list of recommendations to accompany media reports and portrayals with disclaimers that 'promote help-seeking', including the contact details of crisis-support services like Lifeline. (11)

Playing with mental health

Mental As sought to raise awareness about mental-health issues, a task that admittedly required a level of seriousness to ensure that content and the resulting debate were respectful and useful. Interestingly, however, throughout the campaign there was also a distinct use of comedy as a mode of address and engagement. This 'light' touch was most apparent in the cross-media branding of the campaign. Mental As' promotional approach involved adapting the ABC's famous Lissajous curve logo by covering it with brightly coloured dots. The idea was symbolic as much as it was attention-seeking: the broadcaster was going 'dotty' with this polka-dot logo, signalling how it would play with existing language and perceptions of mental health.

Combining comedy with otherwise-'difficult' issues is hardly a new idea, with everything from universal fears like death and ageing, to sociopolitical problems like race, class and disability, dealt with by comedians across various media. (12) But it can also be really dangerous: laughing about something could easily translate into laughing at that thing--or, worse, laughing at and further harming the victims of something severe. Should comedy be allowed anywhere near such a serious and potentially debilitating issue as mental health? Scholars exploring the relationship between disability and comedy deal with these issues regularly, and, while being mentally unwell isn't (or shouldn't) necessarily be considered a disability, it remains something that is widely misunderstood, caught somewhere between medicine and culture and largely considered taboo. Academic literature on how disability and comedy can be linked has developed over the last couple of years, helping many to understand how this mode of address can be effective. A notable example can be seen in a special issue of Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, published in 2013. In the issue's introduction, editors Tom Coogan and Rebecca Mallett assert:

Disability studies and humour studies share an intriguing slipperiness of terminology, and it is tempting to think that studying both in tandem might allow us to get a firmer grasp on each. (13)

Similar sentiments are expressed by human rights and animal ethics researcher Fincina Hopgood, who, writing specifically about Mental As for The Conversation, concludes: 'In terms of mental health awareness, humour is our ally, not the enemy.' (14) To bolster this assertion, she then quotes comedian Josh Thomas, who, during a panel appearance on Q&A, said: 'If you bore the shit out of people they're not going to listen.' (15)

Academics may still be coming to grips with how comedy interacts with mental illness in particular, but one of the highlights of Mental As was a documentary that features someone with significant experience in both. Felicity's Mental Mission, which was specifically commissioned for the ABC campaign, follows eponymous comedian Felicity Ward on stage as she talks about her experiences with and beyond mental illness. In addition to her own accounts of her bouts of anxiety and its effects on her life and work, she also speaks to other entertainers and 'ordinary people'. These interviews provide the show's focal point, with Ward shining the spotlight on Mates in Construction, an organisation that seeks to address the relatively high suicide rate in the construction industry. Publicising the existence of such an organisation is itself already a laudable form of public service, but Ward goes further and uses the opportunity to draw attention to the funding problem faced by this and many other organisations designed to help people with mental-health issues.

This sort of awareness-raising was then bolstered by measures that involved viewers more directly. During the program's broadcast, audiences were encouraged to participate in the discussion via Twitter using the #MentalMission hashtag. This was later complemented by links and follow-up news on the World Mental Health Day website. (16)

A good old-fashioned telethon

It's one thing to want to help, but it's quite another to actually get the money together to deliver it.

The big finale for Mental As was the variety/chat/ fundraiser program Friday Night Crack Up, hosted by musician/actor/comedian Eddie Perfect. The realisation of Bassanese's original idea, the two-hour program was broadcast as part live-in-the-studio, part pre-recorded pieces--old-fashioned telethon television of the sort that the BBC still manages regularly with Comic Relief, but hasn't really been done here recently. 'Old favourites' like Rob Sitch's famous Mike Moore from 1990s series Frontline were revived, while journalists from across the free-to-air spectrum performed a cover of the Stealers Wheel tune 'Stuck in the Middle with You'. Less gimmicky was the cover of Gnarls Barkley's 'Crazy' by musical comedians Tripod, who were joined by Perfect and singer Missy Higgins--a pitch-perfect inclusion as well as another entertaining way to destigmatise mental illness.

Friday Night Crack Up was made up of a sketch, interview and parlour game. Perfect switched between being a referee and a participant, all the while encouraging audiences to donate to the cause. As well as home viewers, corporations were engaged as participants--serving as part of the programming rather than advertisers as such --with a premium on gaining maximum embarrassment for those on screen who are trying to perform simple, pointless tasks (clearly inspired by the resurgence of this type of lo-fi entertainment on talk shows like The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon). One example was the Medibank Private pledge, which saw the company give money according to how many pieces of raw spaghetti were successfully transported across the stage with drink cans. Hardly high art, but these sorts of spectacles were effective in generating money for mental-health research and support services.

The ABC goes mental

The Mental As campaign highlighted the undeniable problem that health and education services relating to mental wellbeing are still in their infancy in terms of funding and understanding. Leisa Bacon, the ABC's director of marketing and audience, acknowledged the assistance the national broadcaster had received to get the event off the ground, including a '[A]$500,000 "donation" of distressed ad space from outdoor advertising firm APN' to help promote the event in the first place. (17) Bacon called Mental As 'the biggest ever cross platform programming and marketing project we have ever done at the ABC', with 'every part of the organisation, radio, TV, digital assets carr[ying] mental health stories', and emphasised that the effort was designed to both 'decrease the stigma' around the issue and 'raise money in conjunction with the Society for Mental Health Research'. Interestingly, she also acknowledged that the broadcaster was looking at the event as a blueprint for other cross-platform initiatives in the future. (18)

Overwhelmingly, the public seemed pleased with Mental As but the campaign was not without its critics. In the opening days of the event, for example, Junkee writer Erin Stewart acknowledged that '[t]he idea is great', but immediately clarified that she would be 'withholding judgement about Mental As as an awareness campaign until it's over, because [she has] been burned by mental health awareness before'. (19) Her argument was based on what she called 'the Mental Illness Narrative', which allows for the development of key stories about mental health, but which, in her opinion, then creates further places of isolation for people who feel they can't relate to these more widely circulated versions of mental health. Citing her own experiences as a bipolar sufferer, Stewart argued that the media needs 'to convey the complexity of managing mental illness', concluding with some questions for Mental As' organisers. After her piece was published (two days into the event), a postscript was added to the article, noting that Aunty had listened and asked her to contribute more formally to the event. Stewart wrote of how she was invited to 'go on air on ABC local radio and talk about youth mental health', where she was able to

speak about the mix of feelings that come along with a diagnosis (both fear and relief). It has given me hope when it comes to the issue of representing people with mental illness--the journey isn't always simple. (20)

An active discussion that raised significant questions, sought a diversity of experiences and gave hope--surely that's a publicservice broadcaster's job done right. And, with the campaign generating a total of over A$1.4 million, the ABC should be commended for its creative, constructive approach to standing up for those in the community who aren't always seen in a positive light.


(1) Mental As homepage, ABC, <>, accessed 20 February 2015,

(2) David Bassanese, 'Autism and Family in the Eyes of a Father', The Australian Financial Review, 11 October 2014, < p/national/autism_and_family_in_the_eyes_of_Fnt4JaAWh3xZM YOcNtEqCJ>, accessed 20 February 2015,

(3) 'ABC Mental As ... Reaches Australian Audiences on TV, Radio and Online and Raises $1.47 Million for Mental Health Research', media release, ABC, 13 October 2014, < -releases/abc-mental-as-reaches-5-9-million-austraiians-and-raises-1 -47-million-for-mental-health-research/>, accessed 20 February 2015.

(4) Mark Scott, quoted in ibid.

(5) Lady Macbeth's frequent handwashing, for instance, has regularly been attributed to obsessive-compulsive disorder; see Wray Herbert, 'Damned Spot: Guilt, Scrubbing, and More Guilt', We're Only Human, Association for Psychological Science website, 26 March 2013, < -human/damned-spot-guilt-scrubbing-and-more-guilt.html>, accessed 20 February 2015.

(6) Todd Sampson, quoted in Holly Byrnes, 'TV Networks Allow Stars to Support ABC's Mental As Campaign',, 14 September 2014, < -allow-stars-to-support-abcs-mental-as-campaign/story-e6frfmyi -1227057498657>, accessed 20 February 2015.

(7) SANE Australia's 'A Life Without Stigma' YouTube channel can be viewed at < qrAaoOdzQZwGtRko8Tq6bOjuXJOZB>, accessed 6 March 2015.

(8) Anna Machlin, Jane Pirkis & Matthew J Spittal, 'Which Suicides Are Reported in the Media--and What Makes Them "Newsworthy"?', Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, vol. 34, no. 5, 2013, p. 305.

(9) ibid.

(10) Mindframe homepage, <>, accessed 20 February 2015.

(11) See Hunter Institute of Mental Health, 'Reporting Suicide: A Quick Guide for the Media', available at < for-media/reporting-suicide/?a=10012>, accessed 20 February 2015.

(12) There are many examples of this in comedy studies and beyond, but for a good overview of how these negotiations work in a specific context, see Gerard Matte & Ian McFadyen, 'Can We Talk?: The Reframing of Social Permissions in the Comedy of Joan Rivers', Comedy Studies, vol. 2, no, 2, 2011, pp, 161-71.

(13) Tom Coogan & Rebecca Mallett, 'Introduction: Disability, Humour, Comedy', Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 7, no. 3, 2013, p. 247.

(14) Fincina Hopgood, 'ABC's Mental As .,. It's OK to Laugh About Mental Health', The Conversation, 9 October 2014, <https://theconversation. com/abcs-mental-as-its-ok-to-laugh-about-mental-health-32689>, accessed 20 February 2015.

(15) Josh Thomas, quoted in ibid,

(16) World Mental Health Day website, <>, accessed 20 February 2015.

(17) Leisa Bacon, paraphrased in 'ABC Set to Explore Other Projects After "Biggest Ever" Cross Platform Event', mUmBRELLA, 9 October 2014, <>, accessed 20 February 2015.

(18) Bacon, quoted in ibid.

(19) Erin Stewart, 'What the ABC's "Mental As" Campaign Needs to Get Right', Junkee, 7 October 2014, < -not-embracing-the-abcs-mental-as-campaign-just-yet/42769>, accessed 20 February 2015.

(20) ibid.

Dr Liz Giuffre teaches in the School of Communication at the University of Technology, Sydney, and also writes regularly as a freelance media/ arts journalist.
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Author:Giuffre, Liz
Publication:Metro Magazine
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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