A reflection on recent cultural and brand conversations around mental health
This summer, we were captivated by the rich, Southern Gothic style and slow-burn pace of HBO’s Sharp Objects. But we were equally intrigued by Amy Adams’ gripping performance as Camille Preaker: journalist, recovering self-harmer, and (not so) recovering alcoholic. At a time where many brands and charities are keen to raise awareness of mental health, Sharp Objects allowed an ugly, visceral insight into the reality of living with a mental illness that many campaigns have failed to capture. This is understandable – it’s easier to imagine living with depression than borderline personality disorder, or the compulsive urge to self-harm.
In the UK, My Mad Fat Diary gave a moving, unembellished portrayal of life as an adolescent with a serious mental illness. Rae was the protagonist – where previously her archetype would have been the butt of the joke. Recently, US-based TV series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend tells the story of a multifaceted, complex lead (Rebecca) – without positioning her illness as a quirky personality trait.
Crazy Ex Girlfriend Title Card, The CW Television Network
Recent campaigns from brands such as Lloyds and Lynx in conjunction with mental health charities have helped create more open space to talk, particularly for men. But for many, talking is only the first step down a path obstructed by waiting lists in a system that is struggling to cope. For others, current campaigns show only a sanitised, narrow version of mental illness in which their experiences and cultures are not reflected.
This is a danger of the normalisation of mental health, as discussed by Hannah Jane Parkinson in her essay ‘It’s Nothing Like a Broken Leg’. Where mental health discourse becomes a kind of cultural cool, and #selfcare becomes a new trend with which brands can associate, the uncomfortable aspects of mental illness become diffused and excluded. Constant campaigning, paradoxically, risks becoming a distraction from the original crisis brands wanted to tackle.
Lloyds/Mental Health UK #GetTheInsideOut
It is abundantly clear that people in the UK, and more globally, are well aware of the importance of mental health. With cultural, and political figures such as Professor Green and MSP Ruth Davidson speaking openly about their illnesses and advancing the understanding of mental health, we are clearly moving in the right direction. But as culture continues to shine a light on uncomfortable issues, brands must challenge themselves to work for genuine, tangible change – as anything else will be seen as white noise.