Raising the Bar on “Awareness”

Posted by Kassy Perry

By Kassy Perry

Nearly 200 days each year are designated as official “health awareness days,” but is this growing “awareness” making anyone healthier?

In 2010, people’s social media feeds were filled with one-word statuses naming a color.

In 2013, Facebook profile pictures were filled with equal signs.

In 2014, the “Ice Bucket Challenge” went viral across every social platform.

In each of these campaigns, “awareness” was a key goal for breast cancer, gay rights and ALS respectively. In this case, “awareness” seems to mean getting attention and starting conversations. For the “Ice Bucket Challenge,” funding was a secondary goal – the action Facebook users had to take if they didn’t participate in the sharing and “awareness” function of the campaign.

Social media activism receives a lot of criticism outside the PR community, particularly when the only function of “support” for a cause is changing a profile picture on Facebook or updating a status. When a user updates their status with a color, are they following up with their friends to discuss the risk factors for breast cancer and the need for regular screenings? Maybe, but probably not.

On the other hand, social media can amplify a marginalized voice or show support for a polarizing issue, such as the equal sign profile picture for gay rights. But for health conditions, there is no “conflict” – everyone is pretty much on the same side of cancer. This means that “health awareness” needs to have a clear next step, giving supporters a true look into the day-to-day life of someone living with autism, ALS or breast cancer and showing what is needed to improve treatment, access to care or even develop a cure.

Starting the conversation is an important first step in the awareness process, but it doesn’t solve the overall health issues we face. Awareness needs to emphasis environmental, societal and economic factors that impact health, not just knowledge about the existence of the condition or disease.

A better awareness day might focus on needed policy changes that would lessen health access disparities or essential funding to help disease victims manage their condition. Policies addressing population health might be supported by “awareness,” but without a next step, just starting the conversation doesn’t fight cancer.