How can better health messaging fuel better health equity?

Professor Marco Yzer’s recent research focuses on current issues that deal with health equity. First, Yzer and Associate Professor Nagler collaborate with the American Indian Cancer Foundation (AICAF) to conduct field experiments among American Indian adult smokers and American Indian non-smoking youth. The study addresses the question of how messaging can help abate the strikingly high smoking rates among American Indians. How does one convincingly argue not to smoke commercial tobacco when traditional tobacco is sacred, and a culturally highly significant part of ceremonies? 

“We presented about 500 American Indian volunteers with one of multiple messages that differed in whether they made the more conventional argument that not smoking prevents health consequences or the argument that not smoking means that tobacco is kept sacred,” Yzer said. “We found that the ‘keep tobacco sacred’ messages had clear persuasive advantage over health consequence messages, and that this can be explained by the extent to which messages resonate with one's American Indian cultural identity.”

Yzer is also researching mental health communication. “Mental health is a deeply pressing current health issue, and we know remarkably little about how to best use messaging to encourage important relevant behaviors,” he said. Through recent studies, Yzer, with help from former Hubbard School graduate students, as well as with Boynton Health Services, tested why University of Minnesota undergraduate college students would or would not seek help if they had experienced symptoms of depression. Two findings stand out. First, students feel that seeking help is necessary and potentially effective, but at the same time feel the demands college life puts on them leaves them with no time to do so. 

“This is a reality check for college administrators,” Yzer said. “In addition to building a mental health support system and encouraging students to use that support, we need to look carefully at ways to reduce unnecessary stressors that reduce students' ability to seek help.” 

Yzer’s second discovery was that increasing levels of depression are associated with increasing intentions to seek help, but only up to a point. Those afflicted with severe depression are the least likely to seek help, Yzer said, in part because of an unfortunate (but typically inaccurate) tendency of depressed individuals to believe that they are partly responsible for their symptoms. “These findings have important implications for understanding how communication can contribute to campus mental health,” he said.