In recent years, mental health has become a popular (and much more public) topic—and with good reason. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 19.1 percent of adults in the U.S. (47.6 million people) experienced mental illness in the last year, with 7.2 percent (17.7 million people) having experienced a major depressive episode. But despite percentages like these, only 43.3 percent of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year.
Social media’s rise in popularity and the shift in the way people view and talk about mental health have happened in very similar timelines. The parallel trajectory makes sense—after all, social media is a space in which we form and build relationships, shape self-identity, express ourselves, and learn about the world around us, and is therefore intrinsically linked to mental health. As both social media and mental health have become more prevalent, conversations have moved from the private to the public sphere, and people—including celebrities, and especially millennials and Gen Zers—have used social media as a platform to start talking more openly about the issue.
However, the relationship between social media and mental health is complicated and contradictory. On one hand, social media is a place to share stories, listen to the experiences of others, and build communities. But on the other, it’s proven that the “compare and despair” attitude of social media exacerbates mental health issues—for everyone, but especially for women and young people.
The social networks have started to take notice, and in many cases, action. Instagram has taken a few measures to mitigate the negative effects of social media on mental health, including implementing new restrictions on posts related to diet products and cosmetic surgery, removing images related to self-harm, and most notably, testing the idea of removing “like” counts on pages. Facebook has been working to make its platform more about meaningful social interactions than about mindless scrolling. And, following suit, Pinterest introduced emotional wellness activities to help users cope with stress and anxiety.
Companies like Dove, Aerie, ASOS, and Glossier are at the forefront of the body positivity movement, featuring all different kinds of real, non-photoshopped women with bodies of all sizes in their traditional advertising campaigns. And brands are also getting increasingly real and unfiltered on social media—but not quite as much when it comes to mental health. So, we looked at a few recent campaigns that tackled the issue.
Hulu x World Record Egg
Remember the egg that broke the record for the most-liked photo on Instagram? That same account, in the days following the original post, posted photos of the egg with cracks. The last of these posts featured football laces on the egg and a message stating that “all would be revealed” on Hulu following the Super Bowl. It turned out that the egg was tied to a mental health awareness campaign concerning social media use that was sponsored by Hulu and supported Mental Health America. While Hulu’s intentions were good, it’s unclear what the brand really did besides sponsor and house the ad.
THE TAKEAWAY: In this day and age, gaining credibility around a certain issue takes a lot more than slapping your name onto something.
Burger King’s “Real Meals”
For Mental Health Awareness Month in May, Burger King partnered with Mental Health America and released five meals for different emotions, because, in their words (and what is likely a dig at McDonald’s), “no one is happy all the time.” There was the Blue Meal, the DGAF Meal, the Pissed Meal, the Salty Meal, and the YAAAS Meal. The brand is getting the right message across, or at least trying to. It’s just difficult to ignore the irony of a fast food brand talking about this topic when there’s been extensive research linking poor diets to poor mental health.
THE TAKEAWAY: Take into account whether or not it’s appropriate to join the conversation. (In Burger King’s case, it may have been a campaign that didn’t involve selling fast food burgers.)
Of all of the social networks, it’s no secret that Instagram has the most skin in the game here. The platform has come under fire countless times for being associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and FOMO, and was even ranked the most detrimental network to young people’s mental health and well-being. Likely in response to this criticism, Instagram joined forces with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in May and launched a campaign called #RealConvo that aimed to inspire people to share their personal mental health experiences, and find supportive communities both on and offline. This campaign was done thoughtfully—Instagram knew the massive role it played with regards to mental health and took steps toward fixing it on the platform itself with real people who use the platform and have a following.
THE TAKEAWAY: Mental health needs to be a two-way conversation. Don’t just provide resources or tell your fans what to do—give them a space and a community to talk openly about issues affecting them and connect with others who can relate.
These campaigns may not have been perfect, but the brands used their platforms to raise awareness and start conversations about mental health—and right now, that’s more than most brands can say for themselves. Going forward, brands will need to keep in mind that there’s a huge opportunity to really blow it out of the water with content around this topic (and not just during Mental Health Awareness Month in May). And, if they can create that content carefully and meaningfully, we think they’ll find themselves making a much-needed positive cultural impact.