Talking about behavioral health issues, especially suicide, can feel awkward or challenging to navigate. However, reaching out to friends plays a crucial role as a protective factor in preventing suicide, making it particularly important to overcome - or even seize - that awkwardness to ensure the safety and wellbeing of friends. That’s the premise behind the latest campaign aptly titled “Seize the Awkward” from the Ad Council, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Jed Foundation and Droga5.
The campaign focuses on teens and young adults between 16-24 years old, as suicide is the second leading cause of death among young adults, with 100-200 suicide attempts for every individual death. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by the age of 14, and 75 percent begin by age 24, underscoring an increasing need for having conversations about behavioral health and suicide early in life. This point is only further emphasized by the fact that 76 percent of young adults turn to a peer for support while in crisis, so encouraging young adults to “seize the awkward,” identify risk factors, and have an open dialogue could lead to reducing the suicide rate and promoting protective factors throughout communities.
While initiatives advocating for better mental health support aren’t necessarily new, the novelty of this campaign lies in its approach. “Seize the Awkward” reframes the conversation toward “encourag[ing] teens and young adults... to create a safe space for their friends to open up about mental health challenges.” By steering away from treating the topic with a sense of foreboding or darkness, which is understandably a common association with suicide, the campaign rightly suggests that preventing suicide doesn’t have to seem so insurmountable, that there is something we can all do to save our friends’ lives.
The first public service announcement of the campaign, “What’s Seize the Awkward,” leads with this sense of accessibility. Set to a lighthearted piano tune, the PSA begins by introducing a series of relatable “awkward” scenarios: two friends in silence sitting on the couch; a couple post-coital in bed; two teammates standing at a urinal; friends in a hot tub; and a prom date rejection. Suddenly, the personification of “awkwardness” appears between the sets of friends, played by Broadway star and actor Gideon Glick, who breaks the third wall as he narrates to viewers. As the official campaign states, this narrator “shows the viewers the opportunity that exists in recognizing something is wrong… and encourages them to use this [‘awkward’] moment to check in and ask about their mental health.”
The narrator encourages viewers to use those moments to have conversations now to “stop something much worse from happening later on.” There is no explicit use of the word “suicide”, though it’s clear that’s what “something much worse” is referring to. Similarly, the narrator recommends reaching out to friends “if they seem down.” Though these euphemisms may seem like a way to sugarcoat what is certainly a serious issue, using less intimidating or severe language makes having conversations about suicide and mental health more like any other conversation, eliminating some of the stigma, fear, or unknown. Ultimately, the campaign suggests that really the only hurdle to having these conversations is “seizing the awkwardness” rather than confronting the gravity of suicide. Normalizing the conversation rather than weighing it with such serious consequence reinforces the idea that we should be able to talk about mental health and check in with each other as members of our shared community.
“Seize the Awkward” extends beyond this single video though - the campaign provides all of the tools necessary to tackling these conversations and promoting connectedness, in the same approachable and congenial tone as the lead video. The site offers other videos, slideshows, and other interactive content on:
- What signs to watch out for
- How talking about mental health won’t make things weird
- “Confessional-style” testimonials featuring popular digital influencers sharing their stories
- How to get the conversation started, including actual phrases to use
- What to say during the conversation
- How to “keep up the good work” or what to do next
The site makes a great effort to connect, choosing media formats that align with the way teens and young adults consume content to ensure that they will click-through and watch.
With peers being on the front lines of these conversations, “Seize the Awkward” speaks directly to the questions and concerns of young adults looking to help their friends. The campaign demonstrates that these conversations should be and can be a regular, everyday occurence in our interactions with friends. Identifying risk factors and warning signs is an important step in helping to reduce suicide, but can only go so far if we’re not also increasing protective factors like connectedness and support among friends.
The Center for Disease Control advocates “building and strengthening connectedness or social bonds” as part of its five-year vision for preventing suicide, given that “received or perceived social support is hypothesized to decrease the threat-level appraisal of the experienced stress and increase a person’s ability to cope with the stressful event or situation.” Ultimately, evidence shows that connectedness - to individuals, friends, family members and communities - can help reduce the risk of suicidal thoughts or behaviors, increase healthy coping mechanisms and encourage others to get professional help.
“Seize the Awkward” translates those same sentiments from the CDC into an easy, actionable conversation for anyone who is concerned about their friend. Through its approachable tone and inviting style, “Seize the Awkward” successfully proves that everyone can make a difference in preventing suicide, and it can be as simple having a conversation.