The ability to influence knows no bounds — even when it comes to mental health.
Platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and YouTube are giving rise to a new phenomenon in which users treat their accounts like chat rooms for mental health, amassing tens of thousands of followers in the process. Influencers and brand owners alike have begun using their feeds to raise mental health awareness and even share their personal struggles. Their posts are a break from the #SponCon sweeping social. They are also, perhaps, a sign that a new kind of influencer is emerging: the mental health influencer.
Chicago-based fashion influencer Hayet Rida uses her online presence to get personal about topics such as body image and depression with her 65,000 followers.
“I’m very transparent — it’s not something I schedule into content,” she said. “The same way I can post I’m on my way to an event, I will post a Boomerang on my way from my weekly cry [therapy].” These kinds of posts, said Rida, elicit “a more loving reaction” from her followers, some of whom have told her they have started going to therapy because of her.
“I want to influence all aspects of your life, from clothing to financial to your mental health,” Rida said. “I get a great, vulnerable reaction and [my followers] feel a deeper relationship to me.”
Brand owners, too, are getting personal about mental health. Jen Gotch, founder and chief creative officer of Ban.do, frequently shares her battle with anxiety on Instagram. In a recent post, she revealed that her anxiety had previously prevented her from traveling, leaving her pets, walking down the street and using parking garages and stairwells.
Beyond the fashion and retail sectors, psychologists and psychiatrists are using social to spread knowledge on mental health. Dr. Jessica Clemons, founder of Ask Dr. Jess and a resident physician in psychiatry at New York University, is one such professional blending her expertise in the field and social media know-how. She regularly hosts discussions on mental health — she will soon host a one-on-one with Crystal Anderson, production manager at Man Repeller, who is vocal about her experiences with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and generalized anxiety disorder — and shares educational content on a variety of mental health topics with her 54,600 Instagram followers.
Ever apt to flock to where the followers are, brands have reached out to Clemons for partnerships, but she is careful in her approach to these because of her unique position as a practicing psychiatrist.
“If a company says they do [something] for mental health, I’d be reluctant to work with them because I realize that if I post that, that’s indicating that I support or this product does what it says,” she said. “That’s where I have to think about my own experience.”
Brand partnerships in the mental health space are becoming increasingly common — though they are prone to backlash. BetterHelp, an app aimed at “making professional counseling accessible, affordable, convenient,” according to its web site, caught heat last year when it partnered with YouTubers such as Philip DeFranco and Shane Dawson. Users of the app filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau, alleging discrepancies between BetterHelp’s claims and practices. The complaints spilled over to the online world, prompting the YouTubers to cease their partnerships with the app.
Talkspace is another therapy app using partnerships to raise brand awareness. The company works with retired Olympic legend Michael Phelps, who appears in a branded video on Talkspace’s web site.
“I was one of the world’s most successful athletes,” says Phelps in the video. “But I was lost. I hadn’t left my room in five days. I questioned whether I wanted to be alive anymore.” Working with a therapist “saved my life,” he adds.
Talkspace declined to speak with WWD for this story.
Mental health partnerships come with both pros and cons, and they seem to pose more questions than the standard fashion or beauty partnership. Raising mental health awareness is thought to be a good thing, but the notion of profiting off of one’s mental health is a matter of ethics.
“I don’t think mental health can or should be bought or sold,” said Dr. Emma Murphy, a Scotland-based clinical psychologist who runs the Instagram account @thepsychologymum (21,900 followers). “I don’t necessarily think [mental health] should be used to promote something, [but] there’s a flip side. For somebody like Michael Phelps to speak about his mental health, that’s going to raise a lot of awareness and that’s a positive thing. I’m not sure where I fall with it yet. I think it’s a fairly new phenomenon and I can see both sides, if that makes sense.”
Clemons suggests approaching any kind of partnership with care. “People are highly influenced and to use this boom that we have with tech and apps as a way to continue to drive business to these apps, we may miss out on the fact that you really should think about what we’re advertising and what role does advertising have when it’s coming from someone that you feel a connection to,” she said.
Rida, for her part, sees therapy app-influencer partnerships as a positive. They are, she said, “where we have to go as a generation.”
“As much as we love social media, we’re also sometimes contributing to people’s false sense of reality,” she said. “I think those kinds of partnerships bring it back down and humble everybody.”
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