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How overhearing messages can lead to overcoming depression

Siegel’s interest in combating depression started in the late 1990s. He was still in graduate school and suffering from the affliction himself. His experience, coupled with an interest in social-health psychology, made him curious about the effectiveness of depression-related outreach.

“I was unable to find any programs of research that asked how people with depression respond to messages compared to people without depression,” Siegel said, adding that available research largely focused on clinical work to treat depression, or changing perceptions of people without depression toward those with the condition, not on using the media to increase help-seeking of people with depression.

The lack of scholarship on outreach effectiveness didn’t stop the outreach itself. Over the subsequent decade, Siegel would come across ads that seemed to be created without any awareness that people with depression process information differently than non-depressed people.

“If a campaign reads: ‘Other people have overcome depression, so can you,’ a depressed person may interpret the message as reading, ‘Other people have beaten this. Why haven’t you?’ This can make someone feel weak, while increasing the stigma they already feel about their condition,” said Siegel.

Health campaigns that backfire and create the opposite behavior in their intended audience are not uncommon. And that was what Siegel found in an initial study, conducted with CGU student Brianna Lienemann, where they tested a print public-service announcement (PSAs) on depression and found that outreach directly targeting depressed people can heighten despondency and self-stigma in those suffering from the affliction. Obviously, an alternate communication strategy was in order.

This was the opportunity Siegel had been working towards since grad school. Throughout his career he has worked with colleagues to create effective messaging for campaigns increasing organ donation and decreasing illegal drug use. Working with CGU students Lienemann and Cara Tan, they learned that an effective means of influencing people with depression might be to employ the Overheard Communication Technique, an indirect way of persuading people. The idea behind “overheard communication” is that you are more inclined to believe information you overhear than what you are told directly.

To utilize this method, Siegel created and tested two identical messages, with the sole difference being that one directly addressed those with depression (“Do you fight depression?”) while the other addressed those who know someone with depression (“Do you know someone fighting depression?”). Amongst people with depression, the ad that wasn’t addressed to them was found to be more effective in both encouraging them to seek help themselves, and reducing the stigma they felt about their condition.

Recently, Siegel received a CGU Blais Foundation Grant, along with William Crano and Harvey-Mudd’s Debra Mashek, to continue refining his approach. He is now rewording current depression PSAs to utilize the Overheard Communication Technique and compare its effectiveness with the original ad.

Said Siegel, “I’m trying to compliment current depression outreach work. There are great things being done, but there is little scholarship empirically assessing how depression influences processing of persuasive messages. We need to do everything we can to make sufferers understand that this is an illness, not a weakness, and help is available.”

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