Why brands should be talking about mental health?

October 12, 2018

October 10 was World Mental Health Day, which made me reflect on how mental health is talked about and perceived by Australians today. 

Image Source: World Mental Health Day

According to mental health campaigner and professor of psychiatry Ian Hickie, from the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre, Australia is “at least 10 years ahead of anywhere else in the world” in reducing stigma. 

This is the result of many players actively encouraging people to view mental health differently. 

Not-for-profit organisations have led the way with initiatives such as R U OK? encouraging people to check in with each other, or Beyond Blue’s “Heads Up” campaign giving businesses tools to create mentally healthy workplaces. Movember have also recently addressed the issue of male mental health, urging men to have more meaningful conversations. 

Image Source: Be a man of more words

A growing list of public figures in sport, pop culture, and even royalty have also played a key role in raising awareness (Barry Hall, Lady Gaga & Prince William have spoken candidly about their own mental health issues).

Mainstream TV and entertainment are starting to depict mental health in a more complex and real way: Netflix’s new series “Maniac” portrays characters grappling with mental health struggles taking part in a drug trial to ‘fix’ themselves. SBS’s latest (and controversial) show “How ‘Mad’ are you?” aims to debunk the stereotypes surrounding anorexia, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety. 

Image Source: Pedestrian TV

The way mental health is being destigmatised in culture is making a difference: a growing number of Australians are opening up about their mental wellbeing and accessing help and treatment. 

The conversation is certainly advancing – but how far have we really come in educating Australians about mental health and challenging their perceptions? 

Recent research projects led by The Lab reveal we may not have come far enough just yet. People view mental health as an important and complex issue, but often don’t personally feel at risk of being affected by mental health disorders. They perceive mental health illnesses as something they can prevent or manage more easily than physical conditions, which are more arbitrary and out of their control. 

If the stigma is dissipating, and the conversation is growing, why do Australians still believe mental health illness is likely to affect other people, but not them? 

Maybe we are just optimistic: as humans, we tend to think we’ll be alright (until we aren’t). Maybe we feel we have the right tools and techniques to maintain a healthy mind through mindfulness and exercise. 

But to me this disconnect reveals more: while charities, employers and government bodies have been very active on the topic, the more mainstream brands who live in our everyday have been relatively quiet on the topic, preventing the conversation from permeating “our” world and becoming “our” problem. 

People are increasingly asking brands to play a role in educating and challenging perspectives on political & social issues. In response, many brands have created powerful campaigns that reinforce their brand’s beliefs and create social change at the same time. They have stepped in to change how society perceives different communities that have experienced stigma for decades, such as the LGBQTI community or people with disabilities.

Last year Airbnb, ANZ and many more exploded the conversation about LGBQTI rights and gay marriage. The year before, brands like Kmart, Target and Australian Unity championed inclusivity and overturned stereotypes by featuring children and adults with disabilities in their advertising.

But mainstream brands in Australia have been lagging behind on the topic of mental health. When 1 in 5 Australians in any given year will experience mental illness, this is a topic that needs to hit the masses. 

Outside of Australia brands seem to be making more noise about the issue.

- Last year Marks and Spencers in the UK started hosting mental health drop-ins in its store cafes to provide a space where people can talk openly about how they’re feeling. 

- Also in 2017, Lynx addressed toxic masculinity and some of the causes behind the growing crisis in men’s mental health head on, with discussion platforms such as #IsItOkayForGuys

Lloyds Bank in the UK is tackling mental health prejudices in a new ad campaign – ‘Get the Inside Out’ – encouraging people living with mental health conditions to speak up about their experiences. 

Image Source: The Guardian

It may be a sensitive topic, but brands have the opportunity to lead the change. Our society is facing a mental health crisis, and it requires everyone to get involved to help solve it.