In the hours following the death of Robin Williams last summer, the actor’s fans had an immediate outlet for sharing their grief.

Millions of people took to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram — expressing their condolences and, in some cases, spreading misinformation about suicide and mental health. The interest was so intense that “Robin Williams” was the top trending search on Google in 2014 — even exceeding the activity surrounding the Ebola breakout.

In the past, people would gather around their TV sets during such events. Today, they are instantly connected through their phones and computers — able to discuss and share information at lightning speed.

For behavioral health organizations like SAMHSA, this change has shifted the way in which it must respond to big news events and disasters.

“We basically have to be ready 24-7,” says CDR Jamie Seligman, a public health adviser for SAMHSA, who works with the organization’s social media and communications team during disasters and other fast-moving events. “You don’t know when a traumatic event will happen, but we want to be ready to do our best to communicate quickly and clearly whenever something happens.”

In order to make this happen, SAMHSA has a rapid-response team that monitors the news and social media and is ready to spring into action.

In the case of Robin Williams, that meant paying close attention to conversations about his death by suicide and quickly releasing a statement about what people should do if they are having suicidal thoughts or if they feared for the health of a loved one or friend.

“It was very short and to the point,” SAMHSA public health adviser Kaitlin Abell says of the statement. “We didn’t mention Mr. Williams initially because we didn’t want to seem opportunistic. The topic of the moment was suicide and we wanted people to know where to go for help and what to do.”

Ms. Abell says SAMHSA’s approach was to consider carefully what message to share while also moving quickly to ensure that the information was timely and useful.

That’s also how SAMHSA approaches other situations — from natural disasters, to mass-shootings, to protests.

The same approach may also be used for events directly related to behavioral health, such as the recent Supreme Court decisions about the Affordable Care Act and marriage equality.

“It wasn’t directly about behavioral health, but the Supreme Court decision was an opportunity to say that being supportive of an LGBT family member or friend has a positive impact on their behavioral health,” Ms. Abell says.

In each case, SAMHSA must address an array of challenges. For example, networks make it easy for ill-informed or malicious people to spread messages that incite fear and the public’s thirst for information means that it is often difficult to keep up with the volume of messages and conversations.

This was especially true last fall, when news of the first confirmed case of Ebola in the United States triggered a massive spike in social media activity as reports drove public concern about the disease becoming an epidemic. On Sept. 30, 2014, mentions of Ebola on Twitter leaped from about 100 per minute to more than 6,000.

The swarm of social media activity spotlighted what can happen when public fear takes over during a crisis, as people were quickly spreading misinformation. Much of the misinformation regarded how the disease was transmitted and spread. But a number of people were also using social networks to spread alarming rumors that the government was putting Ebola into common vaccines.

As it did in the aftermath of Robin Williams’ death, SAMHSA’s team took a calm approach and focused on helpful messages to inform the public and arm them with information. SAMHSA worked closely with the CDC to monitor key hashtags related to the topic and carefully gather and vet information to share with the public through tip sheets about behavioral health issues related to the disease. The tip sheets — which covered topics such as Talking to Children: Tips for Caregivers, Parents, and Teachers During Infectious Disease Outbreaks — were shared through social media and were used as talking points for posts on Twitter and Facebook.

“We were the only agency to produce tip sheets from a behavioral health perspective about Ebola,” CDR Seligman says. “I was really proud that we were able to share that information.”

The CDC, meanwhile, shared factual information about Ebola by posting messages using the hashtag #EbolaFact, hosting chats and question-answer sessions about the disease on Twitter and Facebook, and writing op-eds and blogs that shared more in-depth information about the disease. SAMHSA coordinated with CDC to help address behavioral health questions.

CDR Seligman says this coordinated approach across federal agencies shows how the government is working actively to answer questions, correct misinformation, and provide the public with timely information during times of crisis.

SAMHSA, the CDC, and other agencies quickly deploy cross-functional teams that collaborate to ensure that they are following the right conversations and sharing factual information.

The agencies have also created standard hashtags to help people share and monitor information during natural disasters — such as #311US for power outages and #911US for emergency response.

And they have a library of information at their fingertips that they can customize depending on the specific details of each event.

“We try to use existing resources from our library that we can update and customize,” CDR Seligman says. “In some situations, we can have resources available within minutes. We believe that more information is better than no information, so we try to provide as much useful information as possible, regardless of the event.”

 

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