In Depth

Peabody Award Winners: MTVU, 'Half of Us'

One of the signatures of MTV Networks is its extensive use of polling and focus groups to understand its target audience.

One statistic jumped out at the company’s mtvU campus-focused network: Suicide is the No. 2 killer of college students.

Then, said Stephen Friedman, the network’s executive VP, there was the “shocking number that 50% of college kids were—self reported—at some point were so depressed that they couldn’t function.” Half of those in one poll said they didn’t know where to get help and more than 70% said they were too embarrassed to reach out when depression did strike.

Thus came the inspiration and name for Half of Us, an extensive multiplatform public service campaign to help college students struggling with everything from anxiety and stress to bipolar disorder and self-injury such as cutting.

“If it affects half of us, it is touching all of us,” Mr. Friedman said.

The project’s partner is the Jed Foundation, started in 2000 by Phil and Donna Satow to prevent college suicides and promote mental health after their youngest son, Jed, took his life while a college student in 1998.

The goal of the ongoing campaign is to “change the conversation, to make it as normal as getting a flu shot: See a therapist if you’re bummed out,” Mr. Friedman said. “What it came down to was: Stigma is the real killer here.”

On the Web site for the project, www.halfofus.com, students can survey their symptoms, find out how to help friends and download information on where to get help, organized by school and city.

One of the key elements of the campaign—both on-air and online—is personal stories of those who have struggled with mental illness and thoughts of suicide. It involves everyone from average students who have grappled with the issue themselves or seen it in their friends, to musicians such as Mary J. Blige, Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy and Brittany Snow.

The musicians were solicited by MTV’s music department, Mr. Friedman said, and only a few people turned them down. Most, he said, were proud to have overcome their problems and talk about it.

“This is the power of TV,” said Mr. Friedman. “It’s a very powerful way to connect with other people.”

The evidence is in the letters mtvU received from students who had seen the stories and had been affected, he said, and in the increased number of schools participating in the ULifeline system, an anonymous confidential online resource center set up by the Jed Foundation. The Half of Us site also has seen big increases in students connecting to its online screening tools.
MTV has already spent “millions and millions [of dollars] in terms of air time” on “Half of Us,” Mr. Friedman said, and will continue to make that kind of commitment.

The testimonies of additional celebs are being solicited. The campaign has added a focus on returning Iraq war veterans, given the number suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome from their time there.

A new element, still in testing, is www.myMoodring.com, a Facebook.com widget that lets users tell others how they are feeling. More than 30,000 people are using it, Mr. Friedman said, and those who are reporting depression can choose to get messages that will link them back to the Half of Us resources. “It’s our way of moving to where the audience is,” Mr. Friedman said.