Mental Health ads: more harm than good?

Today is World Mental Health Day, and we are finally edging towards being a society that no longer stigmatises mental health problems.

In part, we have mental health advertising to thank for that.

You could thank the 2015 partnership work from Lynx x CALM, ‘#BiggerIssues’. The aim here was to redirect trivial conversations this audience were having to one that’s more pressing. It worked because it reframed the gravity of mental health problems in order to encourage meaningful conversations.

You could also thank Time to Change’s, ‘Be in your mate’s corner’ and ‘Ask Twice’ campaigns. Combined, they managed to fill Wembley Stadium nine times over with the amount of men they got to check in with their mates. It worked because the instructions were simple; Ask Twice to find out if your mate’s really alright nudges people to act.

Or you could thank Samaritan’s new OOH campaign, which communicates messages from people who attempted suicide to those who may contemplate it. The vehicle of personal handwriting gives it weight; it worked because it’s authentic.

Whether they be from the mouthpiece of a charity or brand, the mental health comms landscape comes in all shapes and sizes to do an array of jobs. Given that awareness of mental health problems are higher than ever, the best in class mental health ads are ones which have made us think. They change behaviour.

But we must be careful of how we use shock tactics

The communications or stunt mustn’t reify or glamourize the act of self-harm or suicide. A study released in February 2018 by researchers at Columbia University said there were 18,690 suicides in the four months after the death of Robin Williams in August 2014, suggesting an excess of 1,841 cases – nearly a 10% increase, based on previous monthly suicide data from 1999 to 2015.

In light of that research, Project 84 could be perceived to be less helpful than its awards and accolades suggest. Upon closer inspection, the campaign actually contravenes all seven of Samaritans Media guidelines, including, ‘Steer away from melodramatic depictions of suicide or its aftermath’ (the complete list is found here It might have cut through, but caution needs to be exercised around depicting suicide. It’s inspiration for some, triggering for others.

We must find occasions that really matter

On paper, ITV’s attempt to get Britain to talk about mental health on the most popular broadcast show is a clever way of galvanizing mass attention. The TVC beautifully highlights the omnipresence of mental health problems in the everyday; the ambition and intention should be applauded.

The practicalities of adopting ‘a minute’s silence’ in a live television moment, however, is awkward. A minute would’ve felt bad for those who experience mental health problems at that minute, on their own. Time also isn’t the barrier we’re trying to overcome.

There’s also no real action being taken. The cognitive load of what we’re being asked to do is to stay silent for a minute, which will override the secondary ‘talk to people about your mental health’. Our memory of that moment’s silence is of what we’re being told to do in that instance, not in what we’re expected to do next.

Finally, any authenticity is quashed by the fact ITV have, and continue to, employ Piers Morgan. Sadly, it takes more than a minute’s silence to undo the damage he’s done by telling Britain to ‘man up’ over the mental health epidemic. The campaign is, in some ways, undermined by Piers and all that he stands for.

So, it’s time we sought moments that mattered. Albeit cluttered, Christmas leaves a large cross-section of society lonely. The January and Feburary blues are very real to those who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, and as many as 50–75% of new mothers experience postpartum depression. Those moments trigger and fuel the worst mental health crises, and they’re good opportunities for us to shift the needle.

Our instinct as advertisers is to garner mass, cut-through awareness. But by “chasing awareness” gratuitously, campaigns are in danger of triggering, glamorising and compounding. Why? Because these awareness campaigns aimed at “the public” too often target a moment in time, rather than try to change anything. For many, being made more acutely aware of their mental ill health (again) can often be the last thing those people need – even dangerous.

There is still so much more to be done to change people’s attitudes towards mental health awareness. To stamp out the gratuitous nature of it in conversation it needs to come from the heart, not the more calculated mind.

Demonstrably, mental health ads do more good than harm. We need to be careful of the gap between the idea and implementation, though. That’s when things – like the people most at risk – fall through cracks.



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