A few years ago, I saw a commercial in which a floating bathrobe followed a woman. Blue and furry, the bathrobe had sleepy Muppet eyes, as if Cookie Monster’s skin somehow gained sentience. As the woman tried to spend a day with her family, the bathrobe kept throwing itself on her shoulders in a heavy, floppy bear hug.
The bathrobe represented the woman’s depression. As I watched, I thought, "This ad makes depression seem extra weird." It reinforced the stigma of mental illness as something we can’t talk about directly. It must become abstracted—envisioned as a floating bathrobe or, in other versions of the ad, an umbrella, a cloud, or an amorphous blue blob.
To me, the ad made one point clear: mental illness is really hard to talk about. As professional communicators, it’s about time we figured out how we can initiate those conversations.
A larger conversation about mental health has bubbled around the edges of culture for a while now. Take the Broadway musical "Dear Evan Hansen." It has near-"Hamilton" levels of hype and praise and deals head-on with issues like social anxiety and depression.
Similarly, consider The New York Times’ bestseller, "Hyperbole and a Half." In technicolor scribbles, cartoonist Allie Brosh paints a hilarious and heartbreaking account of her own depression. Allie's illustrated self, wearing a dirty gray hoodie, detaches from society almost completely, finally finding comfort when she discovers an abandoned kernel of corn under the fridge. (It makes sense in the book; I promise.)
Then, we have "To the Bone," a fictionalized account of director Marti Noxon’s battle with anorexia, and Netflix’s "13 Reasons Why," which addresses the aftermath of a suicide. In media of all kinds, creative people have begun to drag mental health out of the shadows and into the light.
Nonetheless, a tremendous social stigma still attaches itself to mental illness. As a result, opening up about your own struggles can prove terrifying. I speak from experience here; as a child, I found myself hospitalized for anorexia and, as an adult, have battled intense anxiety issues. Speaking publicly about those parts of myself has proved one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The cultural acceptance still doesn’t seem quite there.
As advertising and media professionals, we have the power to shape that culture. It’s up to us to portray mental illness accurately and frequently. We need to make saying "I have borderline personality disorder" as easy as saying "I have allergies."
Recently, I had the chance to work with nonprofit Bring Change to Mind to create an interactive conversation tool. The tool lets you choose from a list of mental disorders, then select the person with which you’d like to talk. For example, you can select "How to talk about depression with a football fan," "How to talk about anxiety with a chef," or "How to talk about bipolar disorder with a history major." Then, the tool offers up a written conversation starter or a short video showing someone broaching the topic.
The tone of the project remained light—almost silly. The idea wasn’t to trivialize mental illness, but rather make conversations about it more approachable.
Other agencies have done great work on behalf of mental health groups as well, but this attitude should extend beyond nonprofits. Think of that Cheerios ad a few years ago—the one that featured a mixed-race family. It wasn’t an ad about mixed-race families. It was about cereal. But it accurately portrayed modern life and helped knock down a conversational barrier.
As people who broadcast words and images to millions, we as advertisers need to strive for a similar impact around mental health. We need to become brave enough to talk about these issues in normal, everyday ways. To make it less weird. Less scary.
I don’t suggest we capitalize on mental health to sell products. But, when creating ads, shows or films, we can make that extra effort to portray mental illness as the everyday issue it is. If we do it right, those individuals struggling will feel more comfortable opening up to their friends and family, who, in turn, will feel better equipped to offer support.
So, let’s hang up the sad blue bathrobe and accurately portray the changing culture of mental health. It will seem scary and awkward. We’ll probably make some mistakes. But, bringing these issues into the open could help hundreds of thousands of people. We owe it to them to try.
Chris Plehal is a Creative Director at Red Tettemer O’Connell + Partners.