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Targeted Digital Ads Help Youth Seeking Mental Health Support

New research on the benefits of social ads.

Key points

  • Ad targeting pulls data from users' internet search history, social media activity, and even conversations to deliver personalized information.
  • A recent study details referral success of an ad campaign for mental health care targeting vulnerable young adults.
  • The study's success shows the potential of harnessing digital media for early mental health intervention.
Social media feed.
Source: Cottonbro/pexels

We have all experienced it scrolling through our social feeds: a very specific ad for those running shoes, a new TV, or a dream trip to Bermuda. Targeted ads pull data from our internet search history, social media activity, and even our conversations, delivering personalized, timely, and specific advertisements. Those ads are meant to tap into our internet inquiries and prompt us to make that purchase or go on that trip.

Using these digital tools has the potential to help modernize the field of psychiatry by connecting youth with emerging concerns about their mental health as early as possible while they are searching for information online. Researchers like myself and colleagues are looking to harness the principles of these advertising tactics to help deliver mental health resources and care to youth in need.

New ad campaign helps young adults get mental health care early

Recently we published a study on the positive effects a digital (Google, Facebook, and Instagram) advertising outreach campaign had, which targeted youth searching for mental health information in New York state. Within the first 9 months of the campaign, 155 teenagers and young adults were evaluated and referred to local care.

In collaboration with Strong 365, a non-profit focused on mental health, we developed an interactive web-based platform for youth seeking help (with an emphasis on the early stages of psychosis). The program was called NYWell and it was deployed across New York state from October 22, 2020, to May 23rd, 2021.

The digital advertisements were demographically, geographically, and interest-group targeted, including ads for allies (parents or friends of those seeking online information about mental health). The campaign offered a live connection to a peer or counselor, a self-assessment mental health quiz, and educational material.

An example of NYWell's social ad.
Source: Birnbaum/Strong365

In the first 9 months, the campaign resulted in 581,981 ad impressions, 16,665 clicks, and 13,717 unique website visitors, while 4,562 people completed a mental health quiz and 793 left contact information. Of those, 173 (21.8 percent) completed a virtual assessment and 155 (19.5 percent) resulted in a referral to care.

While the results are preliminary and the project is still ongoing, they encourage future research and consideration for this digital strategy. This study shows that we can modify something we interact with every day—social ads—not just to make purchases online but to better reach and support those in need of mental health help. NYWell shows it is possible to intervene and deliver important information to the most vulnerable people early.

Providing the best care possible is about early intervention. The earlier the intervention, the quicker mental health professionals can diagnose and get the patient on a course of recovery and the help they need.