According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 1 in 5 youth ages 13 to 18 will experience a severe mental disorder.

Getting help early for those young people and destigmatizing the disease are top priorities for Alexandra von Plato, CEO of Publicis Health, the world’s largest healthcare communications network.

“There is a mental health epidemic among people starting at a younger age, particularly manifesting in high school and early college,” she says. The topic is personal for von Plato, as her younger sister, who had anxiety and depression, died by suicide less than two years ago.

“This is an unrelenting disease,” she says, explaining not all people with mental health conditions seek or receive medical treatment and, if they do, medication alone isn’t always sufficient.

Raising awareness

According to Mental Health America, 1.8 million youth experienced severe depression last year, resulting in “serious interference” in school, at home and in relationships.

Von Plato agrees, explaining that many youths with addiction or social problems may actually have an undiagnosed mental illness.

“We’ve taken it upon ourselves at Publicis Health to undertake a focus on mental health to help break down the stigma and the misunderstanding that often prevents people from seeking treatment, particularly young people,” says von Plato.

Fighting stigma

This summer, Publicis Health’s interns developed campaign ideas to build on NAMI’s #CureStigma movement that aims to raise awareness and destigmatize mental illness. “Since 75 percent of mental illnesses are diagnosed before age 24, enlisting college-aged interns made sense,” says von Plato.

When the project started, von Plato asked the 82 interns how many of them or their family members struggled with mental illness. “Almost everybody raised their hands,” she says. “They had no idea; they thought they were the only ones.”

“Mental health conditions don’t just affect individuals who are struggling. Mental illness touches everyone. This realization led to the defining thesis of our project: We need each other; we are better together,” says Alexa Ciccarelli, senior associate of resource management at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness and manager of the intern project.

The winning campaign selected by NAMI focused on bringing mental health awareness to high school students.

“Once you start talking about mental illness, you make it OK,” says von Plato.