Best practices for approaching mental health marketing research

Editor’s note: Laura Bayzle is a partner at The Link Group.

Over the past several years, we have seen an increased interest from our clients to understand mental health better. This has looked different across industries. Among our pharmaceutical clients who are exploring therapies for mental health conditions, there is a need to better understand the emotional and therapeutic journey among patients who struggle with these conditions. Among our consumer clients, there is a need to better understand how mental health may be impacted by things like skin conditions or beauty standards so they can develop programs and messaging for their brands.

As a result, more of our research projects either focus on respondents with mental health conditions like depression and anxiety or encourage patients to talk about the mental burden that comes with different health conditions or societal norms. We’ve seen that having these conversations through qualitative interviews – or asking these questions in quantitative surveys – can trigger feelings of despair, depression or anxiety among respondents. As researchers, what are our obligations and duties in these situations, and what is the best way to handle them as they come up?

Providing mental health support and resources to research respondents

We recently had a project where we were understanding the mental health and wellness impact that different skin conditions have on people and their loved ones. Patients completed online journals followed by webcam in-depth interviews. During the online journal portion of the research where respondents shared their personal experiences, one respondent shared feelings of despair and self-harm. Alarmed, we looked to the industry to find best practices and guidance on how to navigate the situation and came up empty-handed. The information we did find was primarily geared toward clinical research studies and wasn’t as actionable in a market research setting.

We were able to address the situation with our respondent and, in doing so, realized that there is a real need for the industry to adopt best practices for these scenarios, especially in light of the increased attention clients have on this topic. In the meantime, we have pulled together our own internal best practices. Our hope is that by sharing it with others, we can start the conversation and inspire the industry to create a more comprehensive and standard set of guidelines.

We must remember that most of us are not trained on mental health matters. Our role as researchers is to uncover insights that help our clients solve problems. When we find ourselves talking with respondents who may need mental health support, it is important to remember that: 

  • We are not licensed or certified to provide mental health support and we are not ethically obligated to do so in our role.  
  • We are not trained to diagnose or treat mental illness (or any other medical condition). Providing respondents any advice on diagnosis or treatment is unethical. 
  • Because we protect personal identifying information (PII) in our studies, we are limited in the amount of outreach we can do. Our obligation as researchers is to adhere to our PII standards and policies. 

While we are not ethically obligated to provide mental health support and cannot ethically provide advice on diagnosis or treatment, from a humanistic and empathetic perspective, we may feel compelled to provide support and resources to respondents. These are some best practices we have developed internally to give guidance on how to do that within the boundaries of our role as researchers.

What to do before starting the study

Before conducting the project, determine the expected level of mental health impact that you anticipate the study having on a respondent. Consider the research topic, respondent type, study objective, length of study and types of questions you anticipate asking. If you determine that the research study may create emotional distress in some respondents: 

  • Be thoughtful in the types of questions you ask in the discussion guide and/or questionnaire. Consider pulling in other colleagues to brainstorm and frame questions appropriately. 
  • Discuss with the client what resources they would like to provide in such instances. Remember that PII must be protected. Any resources that are provided should be approved national agencies or organizations. Some resources we consider:
    • Local police or law enforcement. 
    • 988 National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
    • 911.
    • (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration).
    • American Foundation for Suicide Prevention ( or 1-800-273-TALK.
    • Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741).

What language should be used when conducting mental health research?

Consider including an additional introduction for respondents to read or agree to so they understand the potential risk of the types of questions or topics they will be exposed to and allow respondents to opt out if they wish. 

Sample introduction language that we have included in the past: 

This is a research study that involves questions related to sensitive topics/your mental health. As researchers, we do not provide mental health services and we do not have access to your personal information. However, we will provide information about mental health services and resources, should you decide you need assistance at any time. Those resources can be found here [LINK TO INFORMATION]. You can opt out of the research at any time or choose not to answer questions that may cause you mental distress or harm.

In addition, consider including end of survey/end of interview language and resources proactively for respondents to access if they choose.

Sample end of survey/interview language that we have included in the past:

In this study, we asked you questions about your mental state. As researchers, we do not provide mental health services. If you would like to talk to someone about how you are feeling, please contact [list of resources/hotlines]. 

How to approach respondents participating in in-facility, webcam or phone mental health research

If a respondent expresses emotional distress during the interview, researchers should use their best judgement on how to proceed. This could include:

  • Redirecting the conversation and/or ending the interview.
  • Moderator or other researcher asking the facility staff or tech for help during the interview and allowing staff to handle the situation accordingly.
  • Moderator notifying the recruiters or staff after the interview to see if follow-up is needed by staff or tech with the respondent.

Approaching respondents participating in asynchronous mental health research

If a respondent expresses emotional distress (including desire/intent to harm self or others) during asynchronous research, researchers should use best judgement about next steps. Keep in mind that the incident may not be viewed until many hours after the response has been made, due to the nature of the research methodology. 

  • Notify the recruiters about the situation and help them decide if there is an urgent threat and allow recruiters to handle the situation accordingly. 
  • Privately provide mental health resources to the respondent through a private response or chat through the online platform.

What to do after conducting the mental health study 

We feel it is best practice to let the client know about any situations that arose during research and the actions we took to address that situation. It may lead to a conversation on what could be done differently in the future, especially if this is an area that the client would like to continue to pursue. 

The goal of our research should always be to keep our respondents and researchers safe, both physically and emotionally. With an increase in the amount of research we do in the mental health space, we hope that these guidelines serve as thought starters for a broader conversation about how to navigate mental health topics. The work we do as researchers allows us gain deep insights from respondents about mental health which, in turn, helps advance the mental health field across different industries. Keeping researchers and respondents safe while we do that will help us continue to advance this important work.