09/02/2014 12:21 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2014

Ending the Stigma: the Marketing of Mental Illness?


Ending the stigma surrounding mental-health issues is a key feature of the Huffington Post's Stronger Together initiative. Approximately one in four people are affected by mental illness, but a bad situation is being made worse by the ongoing stigma associated with these disorders.

According to the CDC, only 25 percent of adults with mental-health issues believe that people in general are sympathetic toward those struggling with mental illness. This is problematic because, although an extensive array of treatments is available, those experiencing symptoms may be reluctant to seek help. Worse, those suffering may not feel comfortable talking to others about their condition, which is catastrophic given that social connection is one of the so-called "protective factors" against depression.

Reducing the stigma surrounding mental-health issues is therefore clearly an urgent and important task. But how to go about it? Increasing awareness of the prevalence of mental-health issues via nationwide surveys, films (such as It's Kind of a Funny Story), and the revelations concerning various celebrity figures (Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax, Robin Williams), have helped to break down the taboo associated with mental illness. Scientific research into the physiological and genetic foundations of these disorders has also helped to eliminate the ridiculous question of "blame".

But is this enough? Is it enough that more and more people will come forward to begin a bigger and bolder conversation about mental health? Undoubtedly this will do great good, but if we are truly going to abolish the stigma surrounding mental illness, we need to recognize that there is a difference between what is grudgingly acceptable, and what is non-judgmentally and entirely okay.

Take feminism, for instance -- recently given perhaps its most powerful expression in pop history by Beyonce at the MTV Video Music Awards. Women continue to be violently abused and prejudiced against throughout the world. However, much of the prejudice against women, in the corporate world for one, does not arise from any coherent argument about their "inferiority" -- in fact if anything, women are better adapted than men to the demands of modern corporate life -- but from fuzzy and dated assumptions, usually propagated by a fraternity of perverts. Hence the feminist cause requires not only inspiring and well-argued TED talks, but for cultural superstars to provide the accompanying 'Figure 1': the image of an extraordinarily powerful woman dominating the pop landscape.

Likewise in order to end the stigma surrounding mental-health issues, it is necessary not simply to provide rational arguments, but to think about the unconscious images and feelings we are associating with these arguments. We need not only to make arguments, but to make them in the right way. In other words, we need to look at the marketing of mental illness.

This is not a trivial issue. Besides the importance of Beyonce's recent display at the VMAs, consider the ongoing fight to end prejudice against homosexuality: that struggle has depended as much on colorful imagery and displays of fearless pride as on the wise words of scholarly journals. And if we are going to truly end the stigma surrounding mental-health issues, a similar assault on expectations and received assumptions will be necessary.

The association, for instance, of mental illness and especially depression with some kind of underlying apathy or weakness continues to be remarkably tenacious. Consider the recent headlines surrounding Robin Williams' death; the prolific "struggle with demons" metaphor -- e.g. "Busy Working, Robin Williams Fought Demons" (front page, New York Times) -- suggested that Williams' depression was some kind of inescapable character flaw to which he eventually surrendered.

Otherwise, as an experiment, simply search on Google Images for "depression," and see what you find: a series of black-and-white photographs picturing teary-eyed despair? Are they helpful in any way? The act of seeing these pictures alone is surely enough to trigger an unconscious aversion whenever the subject of "depression" is broached, whether in conversation or in confidence.

As Jonathan Rottenberg put it, in celebration of the "Come Out of the Dark" slogan and accompanying glow-in-the-dark wristbands:

In a culture founded on the pursuit of happiness, depression is always going to be a hard topic to broach. But it's going to be even harder when our first associations to the subject are unfortunate images, such as a dark cloud or a noose. Depressed and formerly depressed people are ever on the defensive. We need better marketing and messaging. We need symbols that people can get behind, rallying points for a more productive conversation.

These more uplifting "rallying points" do not need to be insensitive to the extent of suffering involved, but merely to reflect upon mental illness in a different way. As a profound challenge certainly, but one which also provides us with the opportunity to come together, to listen deeply to one another, and to develop meaningful solutions. It is worth emphasizing that social connection is one of the established "protective" factors against depression; in a hyper-connected global society it is not something just for doctors to worry about alone, but for us all to solve together.

So think carefully the next time you are reading or writing an article about mental-health issues. Does the language and imagery being used contribute to, or hinder, the ending of the stigma surrounding mental illness? Would the feelings and emotions the article evokes make you feel ashamed to be a victim, or inspired to believe in the solution?

Have a story about depression that you'd like to share? Email, or give us a call at (860) 348-3376, and you can record your story in your own words. Please be sure to include your name and phone number.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.