Erasing the Stigma
Brands and organizations can make it more acceptable to talk about mental health
It’s safe to say that you to have at least one friend, family member, or coworker suffering from a mental illness. It’s also safe to say you might not know who those people are or what they’re suffering from. The plain fact is, nearly one out of five Americans suffer from some form of a mental illness every year.
Why are we in the dark about something so widespread? There has long been a stigma about mental health at both the national and global level; many cultures consider even talking about it as taboo. But this stigma doesn’t just lead people to live lives full of suffering and shame in silence. It can have deadly consequences. More people in the U.S. die from suicide than from car accidents, and about 90% of them suffer from a mental illness. Yet despite such morbid stats, the conversation, advocacy and strategies to help combat mental health issues remain woefully lacking.
Nevertheless, hope resides. Thanks to a number of factors, both positive and negative, mental health has gradually worked its way into the greater national conversation, and the U.S. now seems to be at a turning point on its relevance.
First, the negative. The never-ending gun violence, acts of terror, and culture of assault plaguing our country have made mental health a hot button issue. Some see it as the primary reason why these acts are being committed. Many, on the other hand, don’t buy that premise and label it a straw man. Where we stand politically or socially often determines which side of the debate we’re on.
As for the positive, mental health is attracting greater attention because individuals and brands of influence are leading efforts to break down the stigma that long hushed people up. Some of the world’s star athletes, artists and personalities are speaking out on their own struggles and triumphs with mental health and are advocating for those suffering.
Trouble is, the way they’re doing it oftentimes comes off as superficial or fleeting. To create impactful, lasting change, long-term thinking and strategy is needed. It may be great for influential people and brands to talk about mental health, but for more people to feel comfortable about following suit, more needs to be done. We at ThoughtMatter feel these next steps are not out of reach and that opportunities abound for brands across the board to become catalysts for change.
Here are a few of the sectors that we think could lead the way:
The universality of sport and fitness gives its leading lights a big leg up when considering the scope of reach they have. Our full props go to the current generation of athletes using their influence to build community and support causes like never before. There may be some who wish athletes would just “shut up and dribble”, but it is precisely these athletes who are showing the world they are superior citizens, too.
NBA star Demarr Derozan of the Toronto Raptors, recently opened up in the Toronto Star about his struggles with depression. That, in turn, inspired the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love to use the Derek Jeter-founded platform The Players’ Tribune to write about his own bouts with mental illness and his changing perceptions on the topic.
“Growing up, you figure out really quickly how a boy is supposed to act. You learn what it takes to be ‘a man.’ It’s like a playbook: Be strong. Don’t talk about your feelings. Get through it on your own. So for 29 years of my life, I followed that playbook. And look, I’m probably not telling you anything new here. These values about men and toughness are so ordinary that they’re everywhere…and invisible at the same time, surrounding us like air or water. They’re a lot like depression or anxiety in that way.” — Kevin Love
While all major U.S. sports leagues have some sort of mental health program, the NBA has been the leader and is about to name its first-ever Director of Mental Health and Wellness. I like to think this was sparked in great part by Ron Artest, who in a post-game interview with ESPN following his impressive performance in the series-clinching game of the 2010 NBA Finals, thanked his psychiatrist less than ten seconds into the interview.
Another league that often comes to mind when thinking about mental health, especially in recent years, is the NFL. It is, by now, pretty much common knowledge that injuries sustained in football, specifically to the head, have led to many mental health issues in players both pre- and post-retirement. To that end, the NFL has established internal departments to bring mental health resources to its players, teams, and league staff, as well as to advocate for mental health awareness. Even so, many consider the league’s response to be too little too late, especially as stories of dead or retired players suffering from brain damage keep making the headlines.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that people are now more aware than ever about the serious damage the sport can wreak, not only on pro players but on players competing at any level. The NFL’s image as a league lacking in transparency has also driven its negative perception. With the league facing a tough task ahead to regain its former clout, a big first step is working to fix its fractured relationship with its players. After all, who better to be spokesmen putting forward the message that the league is changing? To accomplish this, the NFL and its players must develop a more thorough –and transparent–strategy on how to address the mental health issues haunting the game.
We’ve also seen brands in the sports and fitness sector partner with athletes in an effort to advocate for mental health awareness. In 2015, Under Armour linked up with NFL wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who has been outspoken about his own mental health, and his nonprofit Project375. Together they developed a line of apparel with messaging around mental health awareness and dedicated 100% of the profits to reduce the stigma around mental health, sending the money to advocacy groups and schools. But Under Armour’s initiative, while admirable, was short-lived, without a long-term follow-up plan in place.
Not often heard from, are Nike and Adidas, both of which have strengths that would serve tremendously in the effort to erase the mental health stigma. What Nike probably does better than any brand is to convey the emotion of sport, and how that emotion drives not only professional athletes but everyone who is active in one way or another. Nike could utilize this powerful marketing tool to build empathy around mental health worldwide. As for Adidas, in recent years it has tapped into cultural relevancy both inside and outside the world of sports by building a roster of influential athletes, artists, tastemakers and the like–all at the heart of contemporary life. In a world where influence can be bought, Adidas has the opportunity to use the reach it now has through brand ambassadors to build awareness and conversation around mental health while pushing its athletic wear and sneakers.
Many studies have shown the connection between physical and mental health; how exercise can reduce anxiety and depression while improving self-esteem and cognitive function. But some forms of mental illness can make it hard to get out of bed, let alone run for miles. With that in mind, there truly is a need for fitness brands to step up and do more. Look no further than the old-school YMCA for a grass roots approach on how to promote this synergy. A global organization rooted in physical fitness, among the programs it offers to support the needs of the communities it serves are free mental health counseling services for both adolescents and adults. For teens suffering from depression and anxiety, sessions are split equally between mental health education and exercise programming.
There’s no denying that social media platforms have become an integral part of our lives, fundamental to our personal development and our career successes. Nevertheless, studies show there is a connection between social media use and depression, anxiety, sleep problems, eating issues, and the increased incidence of suicide, especially among youth. Most social media platforms were built on the premise of building stronger relationships among people and making the world a smaller place, yet the results have been quite the contrary. It turns out that, the more time people spend on these platforms, the more socially isolated they see themselves as being.
When you drink a beer, buy a pack of cigarettes, or go to the movies, you’re warned about the implications of what you are about to indulge in. So why is something harmful to your mental health held to a lesser standard or level of concern? These platforms thrive on and profit from their ability to collect, analyze and leverage data for the purpose of sales of products, events, and programs. Why can’t they try to figure out how to utilize this information and their skillsets to make a positive impact on the mental health of their users?
Facebook, the leading player, should set an example for other social platforms by taking an affirmative stand on mental health. The company could develop guidelines and strategies to help combat the sense of isolation felt by many using its platform. In that regard, look no further than the initiative taken by Facebook’s own subsidiary Instagram. In 2017, after recognizing how many people not only use their platform to share stories, encouragement, and information about mental health, but to search for mental health support, Instagram launched the #HereForYou campaign. The video campaign featured Instagram users discussing their own struggles with mental health disorders and challenges, utilizing the #HereForYou hashtag and a number of others already commonly used on the platform.
“Every day on Instagram, we see people share their mental health journeys and connect with communities of support. From dedicated accounts around an issue to unique hashtags adopted by groups, these communities are helping to make illnesses that are often invisible to friends and family visible through photos and videos.” — Kevin Systrom, Instagram co-founder and CEO
The benefits of travel to mental health would seem obvious. It’s no surprise that there is evidence traveling can relieve stress brought on by work and daily life. Moreover, the exploration of new places and experiences makes us more mentally resilient by taking us outside our comfort zone. A Cornell University study even showed that “the anticipation of a trip can increase your happiness substantially, even more than the anticipation of acquiring something tangible, like a new car.”
It’s a no-brainer, then, that brands in the travel and hospitality industries, as well as cities and municipalities, could offer further support to the mental health of their customers and communities. Case in point: The London Underground recently launched a series of new maps, one of which includes a map specifically designed for those suffering from anxiety, providing train routes that required the least amount of ride time underground.
Other cities ought to take a page from London’s playbook and think about how they can provide wayfinding for their residents and visitors that best suits their mental health. Take New York City, whose public transportation is the bane of many of its patrons’ existence. If the city paid serious attention to their riders’ mental health while considering how to bring its municipal transit system into the future, that would go hand-in-hand with other much-needed upgrades now in the works.
Then there are the giant hotel groups like Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott, and boutique hotels and mini-chains. They could offer meditation spaces or hotline services so their guests might connect to mental health resources if needed. Ditto to airlines, often associated with the most stressful part of traveling. Although costs are a huge issue for this struggling industry, even providing beneficial reading or listening materials in-flight could help tremendously in easing mental health-related concerns of their passengers.
The auto industry may not seem an obvious candidate to be at the forefront of mental health advocacy, but it has several characteristics that make it a worthy contender. First of all, many people in rural or suburban areas of the country spend much of their lives on the road for both work and social purposes. If you have mental health issues, all that time in a confined space without physical activity can negatively impact your health. Car companies should do their homework on how best to address the needs of such customers.
Then there’s road rage. This phenomenon, the result of the stresses from driving, is another area ripe for these companies to explore. The goal: Help initiate changes that will prevent people from reaching dangerously explosive levels of anger.
One brand in the pole position to lead this charge is Tesla. As a pioneer in electric automobiles, it puts a spotlight on innovation. Already a change agent for how we think about energy and technology, who better than Tesla founder Elon Musk to promote creative new solutions for tackling the mental health stigma head on? Nor should we forget traditional auto manufacturers like General Motors and Ford. Locked in a battle with Tesla and others to produce the quality vehicles of the future, it would be forward-thinking of them to get engaged in the conversation around mental health in order to present themselves to car buyers in a positive and progressive light.
The issues concerning mental health aren’t going to be resolved by the medical community alone. These are concerns that, one way or another, impact us all. The time is now for those with the most influence to play their part. Brands don’t have to make much of an effort to lend their hand. It’s about their speaking out, advocating, communicating through the multiple means at their disposal. Brands that truly want to change lives will appreciate that it will take deep thinking, strategic planning and partnerships, and a concerted effort to erase this stigma for good.