3 Tips for Writing Mental and Behavioral Health Content

Echo Savage, Medical Writer and Project Lead, Content Solutions

As we near the end of the year, Healthwise is nearing the end of an exciting project to expand our mental and behavioral health (MBH) content set. Over the last two quarters, we’ve added a whopping 138 new topics and 85 new articles to our offerings.

In addition to the standard research that’s part of developing any new content, this work was also informed by a close partnership with an MBH specialist, feedback from user testing of key content, and resources like a new set of personas and our "Guidelines for Trauma-Informed Writing"—both developed specifically for this project.

Here are just a few insights from the many things we learned along the way.


1. Remember that audience can be complicated.

We wrote content for parents, teens, caregivers, and patients. And sometimes we were writing to more than one audience in a single piece. It became clear early on that writing to a parent audience in the MBH context could be uniquely more complicated than in other types of content. These are some reasons why:

  • Parents may feel responsible for their child’s mental health challenges or behavioral difficulties.
  • Parents may actually be responsible for some factors that can contribute to a child’s mental and behavioral health.
  • Parents may also have mental health issues of their own that need treatment.

We had to show compassion for parent readers, while not letting parents “off the hook” in instances where their choices or engagement could be a key element in their child’s experience. And we had to be strategic around language. We used passive language to tread lightly over sensitive topics, and we were more direct when it would have the most impact.

For example, we wrote new content on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Some of that content was written to a parent audience. Writing it was tricky, because when a child has had multiple ACEs, their home life is likely pretty unstable. And while parents may not always have direct control over the instability, often a parent is responsible for some or many aspects of the situation.

So we explained ACEs to a parent audience and offered advice without conveying blame or judgment. But we were still direct in telling parents about things they can do or changes they can make to help prevent future ACEs.

2. Acknowledge the hard things.

In our content we are cautious not to make assumptions about a reader’s individual experience, perspective, or feelings. At the same time, directly addressing common difficult experiences or emotions can be powerful. It can make readers who’ve experienced those hard things feel especially seen, and there’s minimal risk of alienating users who didn’t find a particular issue difficult.

For example, we wrote a piece about maintaining a healthy relationship with a loved one who has a mental health condition. It’s possible that some readers have maintained these healthy relationships with little strife or difficulty. But it’s more likely the reader is having some difficulty—and that they’re looking for help, actionable tips, and reassurance.

Acknowledging these relationships “may feel tough at times” and the work they require can feel “hard and tiring” allowed us to achieve a personal and supportive tone. It meant we could offer suggestions for what to do without coming across as blind to the effort and energy the reader may have already spent. Essentially, we could communicate to the reader, “I see you. This is hard, and you're trying. Here are some ideas. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too.


3. Ask the end user.

Sometimes the best, evidence-based guidance just doesn’t land well with readers. Does that mean we don’t have to apply that guidance? No. But it does mean we can learn important lessons from user testing on how to deliver that guidance, like how to anticipate reactions and adjust for them. This was something we encountered more than once as we tested pieces of our suicide-related content.

For example, in a piece on talking about suicide with someone you’re worried about, we’d originally instructed the reader, “Don’t agree to keep this talk a secret.” This advice reflected the information in our evidence-based sources, as well as our specialist reviewer’s professional opinion. But in testing, people reacted strongly to that advice. Users said things like, “I would not have liked that. I definitely would have felt like, ‘I told you this, and now you’re going to tell people my secret?’”

We knew we couldn’t omit that important, potentially lifesaving instruction. But it was also clear that we needed to adjust to avoid causing readers to reject the advice out of hand. We needed to acknowledge their potential discomfort and provide important context. Here’s how we revised it: “Don’t agree to keep this talk a secret. This may not feel right. But the person you care about needs more support than one person can give, and their life could be at risk.”

Better health through better content

It’s so hard not to go on. I could fill pages with examples of the careful thought and consideration that went into creating every piece of this new content. But really, I don’t have to. Those examples already fill the pages of the new mental and behavioral health resources that are on their way to patients now. We’re grateful for all we learned in writing this content, and we're hopeful that readers find in it just what they need at just the right time.

Find out more about how relevant and up-to-date health information increases patient engagement and improves outcomes here.