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Please Stop Using 'Mental Health' as a Marketing Ploy

Please don’t use “mental health” as a buzzword for marketing.

First it was “well-being” that captured the media’s attention. The strapline for dozens of trendy “athleisure” lines — for balms, creams, lotions and potions with groundbreaking and all natural “feel good” properties. For green smoothies, “enriched” mineral waters and laxative-laced “detox teas.” For stylish, coffee table-style recipe books written by so-called nutritionists who simply bought their credentials online, and yoga-fitness DVDs claiming to rid their owners not only of stress and joint pain, but also to burn off their “unnecessary” body-fat and earn them millions of followers on Instagram. Sadly, it now seems as though the topic of mental health is becoming an all too effective marketing ploy for brands trying to sell their publications and products as well. And I for one would like to call out such brands, before their (vulture-like) grip renders the genuine and vitally important work being done to raise awareness of mental health-related issues worthless.

Because mental health and mental illness are not fads. They are not a selling point, nor are they click bait. It is not a trend that can be forecasted by statisticians as “the next big thing” in advertising in 2017. It is not just a catchy headline, nor is it a subject that Hollywood can glamorize in its next few blockbusters before being cast-aside when it no longer serves as inspiration enough to birth a box-office hit. So it would tactless and ignorant for anyone to treat it as such, especially for financial gain, in the same way that it would be cruel to profit from a survivor’s brave battle against breast cancer, or the plight of a stabbing victim.

From my own experience of depression and eating disorders, they are not conditions you can fully understand after reading a 500-word Wikipedia article. I was diagnosed over 18 months ago now, and even after spending many months in treatment, I still find elements of my illnesses utterly bamboozling and nonsensical (though I can thankfully say I’m well on my way to recovery, so it most certainly has not been a waste of time or resources!). I am learning each day new ways of coping, new triggers I had previously not identified, new methods of communicating my struggles to my family. Had I taken “x” super supplement every day for the five years prior to my diagnosis, I would probably still be in the same situation I am in now. Had I done that 10 question, two-minute-long online quiz telling me whether or not I had a disordered eating behaviors I probably wouldn’t have been any closer to appreciating that food actually has very little to do with my psychological difficulties. Had I bought that pretty “awareness” bangle from that generic, (capitalist) high-street chain, I wouldn’t have been “aware” enough to know how to keep myself safe when feeling particularly vulnerable and at risk of self-sabotage. And had I seen that reality-series storyline documenting (over two, maybe three hour-long programs) a socialite’s struggles with anorexia nervosa, I would possibly even have been plunged further into denial that I had a problem, given that I did not fit the stereotype of the person struggling shown on screen. Had the girl I (unfortunately) overheard at work making the brazen, throw-away comment, “Yeah, developing disordered eating patterns is just something that most 16 to 19 year olds go through — they can’t control much else in their lives so they control what they eat. It’s all about control, that’s what is is” not swallowed the misconception the media loves to bandy around (for want of a more comprehensive understanding of the condition), she may not have been so quick to spout what she did — and in so smug and blasé a fashion — thereby misinforming those around her and rendering me, the unwitting eavesdropper, quite so uncomfortable. Yes, raising awareness in itself is key, but how the subject is handled is just as important, if not more so, given the serious damage that can be done if handled indelicately. For it can be highly upsetting, patronizing, irritating, uncomfortable and even triggering for those with firsthand experience.

So, what we should be doing, in my mind, at the very least, is working to open up the forum for healthy and respectful debate. We should be opening people’s eyes to the fact there is no “textbook” manifestation of mental illness — that people who experience mental health issues come in all shapes and sizes, are of different ethnicities, belong to different religions and cultures, come from different backgrounds, are in different financial circumstances, have had access to different levels of education, have different sexual orientations, are of different ages and identify as different genders — just to give you an overview! Taking myself as an example, although some of my behaviors have, at times, been similar to those of my peers receiving the same treatment, our stories and journeys are all highly individualized and personal — and seeing as we are all one-of-a-kind beings living distinctly unique lives, that should come as a shock to no one. Moreover, we should be cultivating an environment in which those who really do have a contribution to make are encouraged to do so, are made to feel safe, are given both a voice with which to speak and the confidence to know that what they share will be valued and taken on board.

What we should not be doing is tackling the issue on a superficial level if we are not willing to confront it on a deeper level. We should not be making assumptions, perpetuating ill-fitting stereotypes, sharing inaccurate information or simplifying to the point that we nullify the validity and complexity of these disorders. And we should certainly not be glorifying what those experiencing mental health issues have been through and continue to go through on a daily basis. It is not pretty, it is not dignified, it is not certified “PG,” it is certainly not something to aspire to. Ever. Even on “good” days, or as you near recovery, (if that is feasible for you to achieve), or at times when you are being “strong” and “inspirational” and “winning the fight.” It is not something I would wish on anyone.

So next time your editor or boss tasks you with finding content to fill that double page spread — just take a minute. Please refrain from jumping on that bandwagon without a second thought, ticking that box, applauding yourself for doing something radical and confronting an age-old taboo in a slick and contemporary way, however tempting it may be. Just take a minute…

Question your motives. Ask yourself in whose benefit it is to continue in this vein. Think about the consequences of the choice you are making.

And if you really are curious and wish to educate yourself, or to help those who are struggling, then look to those who are well-informed and are brave enough to take a real stand and make a genuine contribution to the topic of mental health. Support those charities – often run by individuals who have history of mental illness — who do not treat the conditions as a business endeavor or seek to profit from another’s struggles, but have a real desire to do good.

Please have some compassion and sensitivity. And “in a world where you can be anything, be kind.”

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Thinkstock photo via TCmake_photo.