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The power of language and brand on mental health awareness

As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close, InterbrandHealth examines the nuances and impact of the conversations that took place in this May.

With approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiencing mental illness in any given year—equating to almost 43.7 million Americans—it seems surprising that anyone could not be aware of the black cloud that so often plagues people both here and abroad.

The growing presence of mental health, in both the personal experiences of individuals and families, as well as a common topic in pop culture, means that the most common mental health syndromes are no longer viewed as the once-shunned, unusual and underground rarities.

In the wake of May’s campaign for increased awareness, how do we perceive the collective impact of Mental Health America’s initiative for addressing Mental Health?

To preface: the not-profit’s mission to “promote mental health as a critical part of overall wellness, including prevention services for all” is as important and relevant to people today, as it was when the organization was founded in 1909. The brand’s own (and partnered) efforts in public policy, outreach education, peer advocacy, and support are nothing short of significant for attaining the positive change needed to reduce suffering and the stigma. And the integration of Mental Health into overall wellness is an effective approach for on-going management.

Additionally, forcing the topic of Mental Health on the calendars of brands, individuals, and publications each year reminds others to channel their own initiatives toward achieving the same goal.

What’s important for brands to recognize, particularly when the objective is to generate awareness and public conversation, is that the nuances of language matter.

For Mental Health, the earliest conversations in the category mostly focused on giving people assurance and permission: communicating to audiences that it was okay and normal to experience these type of feelings or symptoms and that they should feel comfortable seeking help.

Today, this type of messaging that reverts back to permissive language can seem residual (that is, reminiscent of a more outdated stage of culture or society) and consequently, can be less effective in impacting those who have already progressed in their thinking of mental health.

What’s most dominant in today’s conversations about Mental Health is the subtle shift from permission to solidarity. You can see this not only in the messaging that brands use, but also in the trend of celebrities and pop culture sharing their own struggles, which often reflects the stage our culture is in. This is evident in stories that cue us with “you’re not alone” and “we all struggle sometimes.”

Most interesting though, and perhaps more effective given the length we still need to travel to adequately address the stigma and barriers of Mental Health awareness and care, is the emergent trend of conversations with tones of power and strength.

Brands that are able to pick up and adopt the subtle cues of empowerment and even celebrate those willing to not only address and talk about their mental illness, but even harness the challenge to achieve their own freedom, will truly be at the forefront of the next stage of the mental health conversation in our culture.

After all, awareness is a great start, but where can we go next if we advance the narrative and galvanize action?


Consultant, Strategy