The 'mental health!' industry
A viral TikTok video illuminates the issues plaguing the mental health conversation. Plus: ketamine's woo-woo makeover, Peloton rebrand, wellness travel priorities, and more.
Latest: Ketamine is now being researched as a treatment for depression. But what's at stake when it's marketed as wellness? I shared my thoughts with Harper’s Bazaar on the goopification of a drug that still requires more research into long-term benefits and potential side effects.
“If it’s built like a spa, customers might view it as a spa instead of what it actually is, which is a health intervention … By putting such a treatment in a more entertaining or soothing setting, you run the risk of distorting its purpose and effects.”
Read: Ketamine's Woo-Woo Rebrand
The ‘mental health!’ industry
A few days ago, this TikTok video went viral: A college student clad in matching athleisurewear is going about her day. She walks around her campus. She exercises. She takes a few punches at the local boxing ring. As upbeat music plays, she narrates what seems like the average young adult life—but she also notes that life has thrown countless obstacles at her this year, “from a school shooting to having no idea what life will look like after college.”
The school shooting she so briefly mentions was the murder of three Michigan State University students this past February.
Before the viewer even has a chance to react to this bombshell casually thrown into the mix, she proclaims, “In support of Mental Health Awareness Month, I’m partnering with Bioré Skincare to strip away the stigma of anxiety,” all while smiling through the product placement. The influencer professes she wants others to “get it all out,” a reference, one must assume, to both blackheads and trauma.
Critics lambasted the video which seemed in poor taste, essentially monetizing a mass shooting. Some wondered if the video was satire, while others noted it felt more dystopian and cringe than anything that might authentically resonate with young audiences. A few asked if gun violence survivors were the hot new sought-after influencers. “This is dark,” one tweeted, “but not as dark as the blackheads this new Biore pore strip removed from my T-zone!
I saw it as yet another instance of exploiting trauma, a term increasingly devalued and used to reference everything from insults to securing Taylor Swift concert tickets. (If everything is trauma, then nothing is trauma.) It’s a term mentioned so much that it’s become commodified.
Trauma has acquired a certain kind of cultural clout, and one that’s certainly propelled past other concepts (like resilience). Of course, it’s good that society better addresses difficult, stigmatized issues often ignored in the past. But at times, it seems our culture increasingly harps on hardship, victimhood, and pain. When does it potentially go too far?
Or perhaps the better question is: how are industries butchering what should be healthy conversations about mental health?
This comes at the peak of the mental health industry: apps, partnerships, branding, and awareness campaigns flooding our feeds. Fashion labels like Museum of Peace & Quiet sell $160 “mental wellness” sweatpants. Retailers such as Boohoo launched #BeKindtoyourmind campaign stressing body image confidence, while still retaining sexy thin models to populate their sites. Celebs used to score brownie points by supporting meditation or wellness platforms, but now they’re pushed to confess intimate trauma stories and hawk beauty lines, all, seemingly in the name of psychological benefits.
And social media platforms, once criticized for how poor moderation efforts negatively impact youth, launch laughably minimal efforts. TikTok added a mental health awareness hub—whoop-dee-do!
What irritates me is the lack of critical thinking when we’re presented with these lauded endeavors, not to mention, negligible inquiries. Selena Gomez’s VC-backed mental health startup Wondermind wants to “democratize and destigmatize mental health.” The actress’ pledge made quite the media splash, with big-name outlets applauding her advocacy efforts. But to this day, no one can precisely explain what Wondermind concretely intends to do. Nearly every article just dances around it, instead focusing on the fact that Americans feel awfully lousy and lonely. What is her plan? Are these efforts evidence-based? Or is it just more awareness efforts? How much more awareness do we need (and emblazoned across our outfits)?
On the flip side, are there drawbacks to too much awareness? On thepodcast The Unspeakable (ep: “Does Your Kid Really Need Therapy?”), psychotherapist Stella O’Malley discusses how suicide prevention efforts sometimes have the opposite effect: suicide and self-harm are spoken about so much in schools, online, and in TV shows—“we’ve spread it like confetti,” as she puts it—that the likelihood of teen suicidal ideation is much higher. “We’ve made a real mess of speaking about mental health,” says O’Malley.
Here’s an even bigger question: What do you mean by mental health? How do you define it? How do you measure it? And then from there, how do you manage it?
For every brand and celeb talking ad nauseam about this issue, very few seem able to explain it–or, as in the case of Bioré, they explain it quite poorly. On the off chance you do get someone to attempt an explanation, you generally get something like “self-care” (which, as I detailed in my LA Times piece, generally connotes a more consumerist and individualist interpretation, namely, bubble baths and yoga.). If not that, then it’s therapy, full stop.
Therapy can be great although it is not the panacea to all woes, especially since we’re dealing with societal issues like loneliness and lack of communal support. (Or, for youth besieged by anxiety, increasing evidence also points to a lack of childhood independence.) Suggesting everyone snag a therapist is not the sole answer. So I was glad to see that the New York Times published two pieces this month imploring readers to think a bit more critically about the limits of counseling.
In “Does Therapy Really Work?”, Susan Dominus argues that since the pandemic, therapy has become a staple of self-care, “almost like a gym membership.” While a vast body of research attests to therapy’s usefulness, there is the risk of overpromising benefits. Not to mention, a debate still exists as to the extent of therapy’s effectiveness.
As is true of much research, studies with less positive or striking results often go unpublished, so the body of scholarly work on therapy may show inflated effects. And researchers who look at different studies or choose different methods of data analysis have generated more conservative findings.
A week earlier, the Times posed a more philosophical question: How Miserable Are We Supposed to Be? In this op-ed, clinical psychologist Huw Green highlighted tough questions when addressing (or medicating) the human condition: What is the goal of mental health treatment? Is it to be happy? What is happiness, and how do you measure it? And how do we ensure we don’t pathologize what are presumably ordinary, albeit challenging, aspects of life?
Essentially, we don’t want too much misery and when pain feels unbearable or distorted, we outsource the decision to experts. But, what is considered abnormal is a power that still resides, Green argues, with the general public rather than specialists. A community decides what is and what isn’t a mental disorder:
If you start behaving in ways that are uninterpretable by your community, you might find yourself in front of a psychiatrist. The extent to which we are mentally unhealthy is a function of what starts to seem unhealthy in the context of people who know us well and are trying to get along with us.
I bring up these two articles because they hint at just a slice of a larger conversation we’re not having; there’s been a flattening of discussions surrounding mental health, in part due to surface-level Insta-therapy accounts and “self-care” culture, both of which fail to grapple with the complexity of the issue. More and more Americans turn to Instagram and TikTok for not just a release, but also guidance as to what mental health entails. And nearly 75% of Gen-Zers support mental health messaging in their ads, according to consumer insights firm GWI. So when every brand, influencer, and corporate entity tries to stick their flag in their ground to claim a part of the conversation, it sorta matters because it’s subtly distorting what all this means—and what we actually need.
There is no easy answer, but if you were to take some of these campaigns at face value, you’d assume it’s as simple as downloading an app or “committing” to a meditation routine, versus taking a closer look at larger societal/systemic issues that require change. But addressing those tougher issues—and bigger questions—wouldn’t fit into a blackhead-clearing skincare commercial.
—Rina Raphael, author of The Gospel of Wellness
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News & Trends:
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