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Q&A: Marian Berelowitz on nurturing mental health

Stylus’ US senior editor explains why mental health is an area ripe for innovation – and how brands have a role to play in normalising mental health issues.

The stigmas surrounding mental health, says our US senior editor Marian Berelowitz, are slowly but surely being loosened. Her recent trend report, Nurturing Mental Health, reveals the progress that’s been made in terms of shifting attitudes and tech-driven treatments – but that massive needs remain unmet.

Marian told us more about mental health being an area ripe for innovation, why mental illness – because of tech – is a generational struggle, and how brands have a role to play in normalising mental health issues.   

You mention in your report that mental health is an “area ripe for innovation”. How so?

“One key element is that, partly due to stigma, a majority of people with mental health problems are untreated, around the world. This is a massive population – for instance, the World Health Organization expects depressive disorders to become the most prevalent disease in the world by 2030. We need more tools for both consumers and professionals here. 

“The other element is not just treating illness but boosting mental ‘wellness’ – being as proactive about emotional health as we’re becoming with physical health, especially as we better understand the deep connections between mind and body. There’s a growing interest in addressing everyday issues like stress and anxiety, and this need is being tackled in all kinds of ways – for instance, workplace design that considers strategies for employees’ mental wellness or food and beauty products that promote calm.”

Another quote that jumped out is mental health awareness being “the civil rights movement of our era”. Can you elaborate on this?

The phrase comes from American football player Brandon Marshall, who has borderline personality disorder and is campaigning against mental health stigmas. It’s a really interesting way to frame the issue.

“There are so many misconceptions about mental illness, and cultural attitudes are still quite unenlightened, even as society is slowly becoming better at making room for, and in some cases celebrating, people who diverge from traditional norms and ideals.

“Now the door is starting to open where people are newly motivated to change perceptions and attitudes – everywhere from the workplace, where policies have mostly ignored employee mental health, to media portrayals.”

Mental illness, you argue, is fuelled by Gen Z’s tech use. But as much as tech is a problem, is it also part of the solution from a treatment perspective?

Gen Z seems to be experiencing an above-average rate of mental problems, and many experts put that down to immersion in smartphones and social media. But there’s always two sides to the coin.

“There are some great supportive communities on social media, like Sad Girls Club, which is an Instagram community for women of colour. There’s been a wave of supportive and awareness-raising Twitter hashtags – the mental health advocate Amanda Stafford does one a week. Social media can really help to normalise this conversation.

“And then there’s a lot of promise in new technologies – things like emotion recognition, artificial intelligence and virtual reality – for treating patients in ways that can really empower people and also extend the reach of treatment.”

Have these technologies already started making an impact?

“This area is still very new, so it’s too soon to tell what’s successful (in terms of consumer adoption and positive outcomes), but we can expect a wave of interesting products coming to market the next few years. CB Insights says equity funding for mental health and wellness companies is likely to reach a record $237m in 2017. 

“This year we’ve seen new quite a few intriguing concepts, like the Woebot – a talk therapy chatbot accessed through Facebook Messenger. There’s a new app called Huddle that uses video chat to provide group therapy. New wearables include Brainno, which is an ear device that monitors reactions to stress and prompts the wearer on ways to enhance their mental performance and wellbeing.”

Are new formats shining a spotlight on mental health issues, and do they run the risk of going too far?

“What’s interesting is that it’s not unusual to see battles with mental health described in literary memoirs or rock songs, but as people become more open, it’s being explored in other creative formats. For instance, there are a few new magazines, including Anxy in the US and Do What You Want in the UK. In a TV format, the comedian and actress Maria Bamford shows what it’s like living with bipolar disorder on her Netflix show Lady Dynamite.

“I didn’t expect to find an arts festival on mental illness – in Australia, the recent Big Anxiety festival brought together artists, scientists and communities to explore the state of mental health. Festival director Jill Bennett told us that including art in the mix is important, because it brings in something that science and medicine lack.

“All these are nuanced and considered explorations of mental health, some from first-hand experience. By contrast, some experts have criticized the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which is based on a young adult novel about a teen who kills herself, as glamorizing suicide and possibly triggering contagion effects. The last thing you want to do is to trivialise, romanticise or exploit mental illness.”

Despite progress, there’s a still a stigma attached to mental health. What can brands do to help combat it? 

“We’re only in the early stages. As Jill Bennett told me: ‘Awareness is increasing but from a very low bar.’ She also pointed out that: ‘Stigma is hard to shift until people have first-hand experience that confounds stereotypes.’ It will take many more people being open about their issues – and feeling it’s OK to do so – to change cultural perceptions.

“Some media and entertainment brands are doing their part here. For instance, Teen Vogue devotes a section of its Wellness department to mental health, which includes some first-person accounts. Various brands have launched thoughtful initiatives, like skincare company Philosophy. See its How are you, really? video, which is part of an initiative called Hope & Grace. It’s donating a percentage of sales to local organisations supporting mental health and wellbeing. In 2018, it’s extending the effort from the US to global.

“As with any sensitive issue, it requires a depth of understanding before diving in, so while brands definitely have a role here, it’s enormously important to seek guidance from those with expert insight.”

If you’re a Stylus member, you can read Nurturing Mental Health now. If you’re not, and you’d like to find out more about the benefits of membership, get in touch.