How Mental Health Became the New Feminism
Co-opted by brands and covered to death by every outlet going, has mental health content lost all meaning?
Photo via Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images
(Top photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images)
When your daily Google Alerts emails start to show more results for "anxiety" than "global warming", "climate change" or "terrorism", you know something's going on in the media.
This shift started in December of 2014, when The Guardian did a Christmas appeal telethon to raise money for mental health charities. The following spring, VICE ran a special editorial series on the topic, and by the end of 2015 vast numbers of other publications had done the same.
Throughout 2016, mental health was everywhere: the words "anxiety" and "depression" began popping up in headlines about seemingly innocuous things – politics, diets, apps, fatherhood, cats – and soon enough "anxiety" had been ascribed to all sorts of everyday things; "work anxiety", "car park anxiety", "orgasm anxiety".
A couple of months later, throwaway content models had fully emerged: listicles of people battling mental health issues; summaries of personal success stories; celebrities talking about mental health; and possibly the most reductive, unhelpful format of all: "Can yoga / juicing / sleeping / fucking / cutting gluten / moving country / the Headspace app 'cure' your mental illness?"
Via that mass of conversation, previously inconceivable positives have been attained: the profile of mental health has been raised, the stigma surrounding it has decreased and the internet is now full of resources for sufferers. Campaigns aimed at men in particular have been crucial. In case of any misunderstanding: mental health became cool. And thank god it did – all this coverage has filled a hole that needed filling for decades.
But now, a few years on from that initially helpful explosion of coverage, it feels like we're living in a climate of mental health white noise. Clickbait sites churn out shallow content that doesn't help anyone; the same first person stories are recycled across multiple platforms; and mental health has become a buzzword, used to appeal to the zeitgeist – to grab blindly for cultural cache. Just look at last week's NME cover, which reprinted Stormzy's Channel 4 interview about depression verbatim and put him on the cover without his permission, declaring that now – in 2017, after years of literally everyone talking about it – it's "time to talk" about depression.
At the heart of much of this is celebrity, and our perceived need to identify with them – to know they're just the same as us. It's now routine for celebrities to be questioned about their mental health in interviews, and news sites will repurpose the same quote or two about how they suffered, telling everyone repeatedly that Emma Stone has anxiety or Selena Gomez has depression.
While at first it was comforting to know that others were going through the same struggles as you – even big stars with all the help in the world at their disposal – it's become tiresome, contrived and largely unhelpful. It's like five years ago, when seemingly every single famous woman interviewed was asked if they were a feminist, purely in the hope of coaxing a cover line or pull quote out of them.
If hearing about a celebrity's depression encourages a reader to start talking openly their own struggles, that's a good thing. However, we're now at a point of utter saturation: of the same basic formats being reproduced continually in the name of "raising awareness". As media consumers – and producers – we should be critical of how we're talking about mental health, who's doing the talking and why they're doing it.
The first question we have to ask is: what does any of it mean any more?
The vast majority of mental health coverage – as far as I've seen via my daily Google Alerts – concerns white women, like myself, with anxiety and white men with depression. Everyone has mental health, we've learnt, and "everyone" reflects two categories. The working class are still hugely underrepresented, as are people of colour, and the focus is predominantly placed upon mood disorders – which are important, of course, but represent only a proportion of the mental health issues that affect the general population.
"As soon as brands get involved, mental health becomes something that has to be cleansed."
Mental health has also very much become a commodity – the flavour of the month for brands looking for a social issue to back. Marketing agencies are making videos of young people talking about how mental health is easy to discuss these days, encouraging brands to do their bit – and many have followed that advice. PRs for musicians are just as guilty, routinely crowbarring their clients' mental health issues into promotional emails.
The problem here is that as soon as brands get involved, mental health becomes something that has to be cleansed. Branded content about depression or anxiety is always about recovery stories – a young white male actor looking morosely into a camera, saying he started feeling a bit sad one day, but that the support of his Saturday league team made him feel better. This content deals with anxiety and depression; never long-term conditions like BPD, or something less savoury, like psychosis. Someone who's worked on a mental health-themed branded content project told me on the condition of anonymity that their initial case studies had been rejected by the brand for being "too mental". On camera, these people seemed "too depressing". In a piece of branded content about mental illness.
The feminism comparison applies here, too. All those "Five Times Kick Ass Feminists Killed It!" listicles thrust feminism back into the public consciousness in the same way this media trend has for mental health issues. But then feminism got co-opted by brands, whose campaigns helped to foster the growth of a very specific type of non-intersectional middle-class feminism, and everyone got fatigued. And what's really changed? In the UK, the gender pay gap is still at 13.9 percent; reported rapes have doubled in four years while conviction rates have fallen; and on International Women's Day this year it was reported that the number of female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies had fallen by more than 12 percent.
"Ultimately, the problem lies in the fact that we've done plenty of talking and seen absolutely no action."
When it comes to mental health, none of these outward displays of acceptance have translated into real world change. The media continues its system of pyramid pay, with those at the top earning considerably more than most staff, who are expected to work long hours on short-term contracts. Women's mags – late as usual to jump on the bandwagon – support mental health issues while continuing to project unrealistic ideals with thin models, providing contradictory messages of "Be healthy and well" alongside "Lose weight", "Look younger" and "Buy more".
Record labels and management companies provide little support for musicians – a high-risk group, having to tour relentlessly to make a living, often with easy access to drugs and drink. A similar situation applies in the world of film and TV. In fashion, young people work notoriously long, underpaid or unpaid hours; models are underweight, with meals skipped; and seasons are never-ending. Even famous designers, who struggled and died with mental health issues themselves, have been described as "sacrificed in the name of capitalism".
Ultimately, the problem lies in the fact that we've done plenty of talking and seen absolutely no action. In the UK, waiting lists for psychological treatment are often months long; access to most forms of therapy is hard to come by; and thousands of mental health patients are being sent across the country, away from family, for a hospital bed. British Prime Minister Theresa May has paid lip service to improving the situation, but in real terms has pledged a pitiful amount of money towards it. Her government is also responsible for cutting the equivalent of £598 million from mental health services between 2010 and 2015. The situation is worse now than it was in 2014, when I wrote that the only option to get the proper care you need is to go private – a completely unfeasible option for the majority.
It's a similar state of affairs in the US – a country with fewer psychiatric beds than many other developed countries, where two-thirds of primary care physicians are unable to find a professional to look after their patients after diagnosis. And with Trump in power, nothing's getting better any time soon: from 2020 the proposed American Healthcare Act – the GOP's Obamacare replacement – would "eliminate the current requirement that Medicaid cover basic mental-health and addiction services in states that expanded it", according to PsychCentral.
We've reached a brick wall with mental health. For starters, the sheer mass of content risks becoming impenetrable, and the overuse and misuse of words like "anxiety" can lead to them losing all meaning. "Raising awareness" and "breaking taboos" are nice phrases for brands and publications, but at this point, are they really changing anything?
"On one hand we know that good media portrayals of people with mental health problems can have a really positive effect on people's attitudes and encourage people to seek help," says Jenni Regan from mental health charity Mind in an email. "However, it is then important that the help and services are then available. NHS mental health services have been subjected to significant cuts over recent years, at a time of rising demand, and we see the impact of this in people not getting the help they need when they need it."
She adds that coverage has been better for illnesses such as depression and anxiety, and worse for others. In Mind research from November of 2016, for example, three-fifths of people said they think people with schizophrenia tend to be portrayed more negatively in the news and entertainment media than people with other mental health issues, and 45 percent said people with schizophrenia are typically portrayed as more dangerous.
Empathy and understanding and a reliance on your personal support network is vital when it comes to mental health. But it's also politically cost-effective. By repeating "it's time to talk", we're constantly underplaying the role the state should be playing. The weight neoliberalism places on the individual – and their responsibility when it comes to looking after themselves – can only go so far.
Ramona McCartney from anti-austerity charity The People's Assembly agrees. "While it's good that there is increased coverage and campaigning around mental health issues, we need to address the root cause in the rise of mental heath issues, or the situation is only going to get worse," she says over email. "Not only has this government cut mental health services, but services right across the board have been slashed to next to nothing. Living standards have fallen, precarious employment and unfair working conditions are on the rise. If people want to talk about seriously tackling mental health issues, the government need to be held accountable for these things."
While talking about mental health is helpful to a point, we need more: more pressure on the government to provide extra funding; more outrage when money earmarked for mental health services is diverted away from mental health services, as £800 million was last week. We need to refocus energies towards those who've been silenced by mainstream mental health narratives, "raising awareness" in communities and minority groups where work still needs to be done. We need to continue with nuance. The media might have done some brilliant things for mental health, but instead of believing anything to do with the topic is exempt from criticism, we must be able to admit when we're treading water.
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