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Ever since the second wave of the pandemic hit, concerns about mental health have sprung up again. News publications have been circulating expert advice to help readers manage their headspace better. Mental health pages on social media have been urgently pushing out references to the resources people can rely on. And company leaders on LinkedIn have been urging their peers to go easy on their employees.

All rightfully so. With the second wave, people have suddenly lost the sense of relief they had begun to feel as restrictions were relaxed. It was after months that they had started to experience a semblance of normalcy, and the last three weeks have completely undone that. In a way, it is worse than being back to square one.

Given the situation, this also seems like the right time for brands to revisit the theme of mental health. We have done some homework that can help move the process along. By studying a sample of branded content that addresses mental health, we have recognised five common angles through which brands are trying to shape audience perception around the subject in India.

Take a look.

Mental health through acts of self-care

Our primary illustration comes from Google. In June 2020, it came out with a video tagged #BeKindToYourMind:

The video highlights how this pandemic has increased the pressure on the caregivers within families to ensure that family elders maintain good health and the young ones feel mentally and emotionally nourished. While these caregivers have been quick to find solutions to help their loved ones, they have probably not had the chance to take care of themselves. Especially in the Indian context, where one is expected to fulfil their responsibilities to their family before attending to themselves.

Responding to caregivers with this mindset, Google insists that they learn to help themselves like they help others. It shows the small yet essential ways of managing their mental health. It outlines established procedures such as art therapy and yoga that can be followed to feel better. The brand demonstrates how self-care is about stress management through a purposeful pursuit of positivity.

Another example comes from Future Generali India Insurance. Early this year in April, it launched a series of interviews with accomplished sportspersons called Mind Matters. Each interview focuses on the featured personality’s experience with mental health and how they have dealt with related challenges in the past.

The first episode is centred on star footballer Sunil Chhetri:

Towards the end of the episode, host Samir Kochhar quizzes Chhetri to find out the little things and acts that comfort him during a tough time. For example, he asks him to list three small things that make him happy, to which Chhetri responds, ‘a window for a nap in the afternoon, an upcoming cheat meal, and spending time with my wife’.

This exercise serves as a subtle cue to viewers – good mental health is about the little things that consistently make one happy and not only about serious gestures like seeking professional help. And that it is important to practise awareness of those things so they can be consciously included in everyday life for effective self-care.

Mental health through social support

While Google’s primary message in #BeKindToYourMind is to take care of oneself like one does for others, its secondary message (that is kept unarticulated) is that mental health is truly managed when we all care for each other and participate in the other’s emotional journey.

Even when it shows a lady practising yoga as self-care, it shows her child next to her, trying to copy her pose. When Google shows a man finding joy in the concluding clip, it shows him finding it in the affection shown by his toddler. In a different segment, that suggests looking up motivational quotes, the brand includes a clip of a young girl emphasising a message of self-affirmation, presumably taught to her by her caregiver (‘trying to do my best in my heart’).

Indirectly, Google seems to suggest that while maintaining mental health is about acts of self-care, it is founded in a nurturing environment created by loved ones. It is about the intergenerational support that strengthens the family.

Here, the support system has been equated to the family to find relevance during Covid times, but nevertheless, it shows that the best way to deal with things is together.

Mental health through education and awareness

The brands we studied have relied on two ways of raising awareness. One, through straightforward facts and professional consultations, and two, through anecdotal evidence.

Future Generali’s talk show Mind Matters employs the second. It paints a vivid picture of mental health issues by amplifying anecdotes from public figures people look up to. It tries to flesh out what mental illness feels like by going beyond listing symptoms in minimal phrasings borrowed from expert lingo.

By focussing on sportspersons, it contextualises mental illness in a way relatable to many – through the space of performance and competition where publicly-held notions of success and failure influence people’s assessment of their worth. A space where most are bound to undergo psychological challenges.

This choice in contextualisation, additionally, allows Future Generali to discuss factors of guilt and harsh public assessment – two aspects that accompany the experience of poor mental health in India – through space where they manifest in extreme, through the stories of sportspersons who are expected to perform well consistently.

The purpose of sharing this anecdotal experience is to help viewers find on-ground ways of dealing with mental illness from people they idolise. It is also to help them realise that they aren’t alone in feeling a certain way (‘you go into this cocoon of thinking everything is your mistake,’ said Chhetri in episode 1) and that feeling is a symptom of their condition.

And of course, the more that influential people tell their stories, the more viewers realise that having mental health troubles is not a sign of weakness – if even the strongest performers can develop them, so can the viewers.

Coming back to the first way of spreading awareness, the route of using facts and professional consultations is adopted by the brands that we studied – Google, Cadabams Hospital, Future Generali and Prega News. All four seem to view educating oneself and becoming aware as a key method of managing mental health, and so, have provided tangible resources in addition to their messaging.

Google has created a page to share resources for Covid relief and management, and a section within the same shares material through which people can learn to manage their mental health better. Cadabams and Future Generali have both put out similar resources that can help people understand common mental illnesses better. Only Future Generali’s comes with an additional segment offering a holistic health insurance plan that, in addition to the usual, offers a safety net for possible future mental health troubles.

Prega News, in a similar attempt, created a short video about prenatal depression that indicates how mental health illness can arise during periods of significant life shifts such as pregnancy, the pandemic or in this case, a combination of both. The video concludes by directing people to an upcoming live discussion on Facebook that can help viewers learn about the subject through experts.

PregaNews: World Mental Health Day | Prenatal Depression | #JustTalk:

Mental health as deserving the same care as a physical injury

Cadabams Hospital, a centre for psychiatry and neurology, came out with a film called #ReadTheSigns:

The film juxtaposes the common reaction to a physical injury with the common reaction to mental illness. Through this contrast, it brings out how different in nature the two wounds are, how differently people react to them and how they should ideally be reacting to mental illness.

Unlike mental illness, a physical injury is overtly present. It is easier to spot because it invokes an exclaimer from the injured. And the ways to care for it are relatively uncomplicated and widely known – if it is a fresh open wound, sanitise it, if it is a burn, apply ointment and so on. But this difference shouldn’t become an excuse to not learn about mental illness and gain awareness to spot it, insists Cadabams.

If a physical injury is treated with urgency and relief is sought for the injured, the same must be done for the mentally ill. If friends, family and strangers go out of their way to help the physically injured and soothe and reassure them through the process of recovery, then they must do the same for the mentally ill. And if the physically injured are not expected to recover by themselves and surrounding parties are expected to pitch in to nurse them back to health, then the mentally ill should be approached the same way.

Sunil Chhetri makes the same comparison between physical and mental health in the first episode of Future Generali’s Mind Matters. He says that the mind matters because ‘it is the motherboard’. No matter how physically fit a sportsperson is, they will not be able to perform their best if they are feeling mentally unwell.

He also highlights how ‘if you get a small ankle sprain, there are fifteen people in the club who go mad to make sure your ankle heals and you get back on the pitch. We've got to spend the same energy and time to ensure that everyone is also mentally fit’.

Mental health is dealt by reading the signs

From our sample, this angle shows the best in Cadabams #ReadTheSigns and Future Generali’s video series with animated objects that voice their rough treatment by a mentally ill person.

While #ReadTheSigns is centred on a comparison between a physical injury and mental illness, its concluding message is to ask viewers to read the signs, or interpret words and actions for what they signal, because "not all wounds are visible". And that just because mental illness isn’t as visible as physical wounds, doesn’t mean it isn’t widely prevalent. It asks viewers to not trivialise something just because they haven’t been able to perceive it yet.

Future Generali’s videos, ‘The overworked pillow’, ‘The stressed-out stress ball’ and ‘The scared vase’ all feature objects that bear and voice signs of usage by a mentally ill person. The overworked pillow is constantly tossed and turned and used to wipe tears. The stress ball has been so aggressively squeezed despite its owner’s reduced appetite; the ball expresses gratitude for a lack of bones that would have turned to dust. The vase speaks to the viewer while its owner pelts breakable objects at the wall that the vase sits before.

Each complaint from the objects is meant to indicate the common symptoms of mental illness. The indirect way of approaching the symptoms can be read as the brand’s way of saying that these signs need reading into, just like the objects’ complaints do.

Wrapping Up – The importance of creating such branded content

Seeing how ubiquitous they are, brands can surely use their presence to offer relief and guidance during this time – in addition to the Covid resources they are arranging.

Ours is a culture that has a long way to go before it treats mental health issues seriously, and this seems like an opportunity when our collective understanding of the subject can be pushed to undergo some change. It is a time when we have no choice but to reckon with what a poor mental state can do to a person.

If brands approach this period as such and start relevant and wide-reaching conversations to grow awareness, they could make a dent in the social handling of the issue and, of course, be remembered fondly as changemakers by consumers.