Brands Put a Spotlight On Mental Health In India

According to a WHO report, more than 14 per cent of people in India have mental health problems

By Chitrakshi Bhutani


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There is no denying the fact that many of us live in denial. We have a tendency to downplay the unpleasant aspects of life, such as rift with a friend, toxic relationships, unhealthy workplace environments, and whatnot?

For instance, denial with a friend could mean avoiding disagreement; denial with a spouse is performed to overlook flaws or to make a relationship work; and denial with a supervisor is done to steer clear of issues that could jeopardize financial stability. The overproduction of truth is itself consuming and self-denial is often chosen as a coping mechanism. Denial as a 'coping' strategy is not at all bad; however, denial on a regular basis is synonymous with weak personal powers when faced with a situation. Nobody likes letting go of that reassuring impression that "everything is okay," especially when they are aware that it is not.

Taking cues from the denial 'tendency' of Indians, cosmetic retailer, Maybelline India bravely asks people to "Raise your hand if you are pretending to be okay in front of friends and family". In its ad campaign, "Maybelline Brave Together", the cosmetics maker is not selling beauty products; rather creating awareness to de-stigmatize mental health issues facing the population of India.

According to a WHO report, more than 14 per cent of people in India have mental health problems. The numbers are alarming. According to projections, there is a strong positive correlation between the population's growing number of mental health issues and the slowdown in India's economic growth. In addition, the stigma attached to the disorder goes hand in hand with the rising number of problems with mental wellbeing. That said, people become reluctant to ask for help and refrain from consulting in psychiatric wards, which in turn forces them to suffer in isolation.

A study by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) found that despite being ill for more than a year, approximately 80% of the population is prevented from seeking treatment or counseling because of the stigma associated with mental health. The fear of judgement, image distortion, and lack of support are the antecedents of not consulting a medical practitioner.

In order to combat mental health stigma in India, a host of brands provide healing services through specially curated mobile apps. Take for example, Headspace, an app-based solution to practice mindfulness through meditation, sleep exercises, on-demand psychiatric counseling sessions and therapies. Tele-consultation through mobile apps is gaining traction among doctors and patients for reasons other than 'stigma'. ITC brand Fiama's recent initiative 'Feel Good with Fiama' is taking mental health conversations forward via virtual clinics with access to sessions, therapies, advice on mental health from top-notch professionals at a nominal price, claims the manufacturer of noodles, biscuits, and cigarettes.

Virtual clinics are a 'safe haven' for people vying for 'accessibility' and 'affordability'. A report by Deloitte, India states that mental health spending is prioritized far less than physical health investment. It is quite evident from the insurance spending of Indians. That said, brands like Future Generali Insurance urges Indians to recognize early signs of mental illnesses through a thought provoking campaign called #HealthInsideOut. The insurance seller very sophisticatedly presents "Future Generali Health Total" that covers mental health "too" along with physical health insurance.

The unique product educates insurance buyers of the gravity of mental health issues, which are often ignored. Brands' efforts to de-stigmatize, normalize mental health issues with thought-provoking discussions channelised through a platform; or selling insurance in light of mental health crisis raises a very pertinent question: Are brands actually responsible or just pretending to be one? Employer brands like Bumble, Nike, PwC, LinkedIn, and Google to name a few have satisfactory answers to these questions. A paid week off, unplugging week, special provisions/policies covering mental health needs of 'employees', who are also an important set of customers. These brands are global trendsetters showing their support in this shift. Apart from employer brands, celebrity brands are also front runners in the quest for fighting silent pandemic i.e., mental health in India. What is in it for brands?

Take for example, Bollywood fame 'Deepika Padukone', who donated stories of hope from her own journey of anxiety and depression to have founded 'Live, Love, Laugh Foundation', a mental health initiative in the Tech city of India. Through her initiative, she aims to educate/sensitize the masses of mental health issues. Self-expressive brands like Padukone aim to attenuate the grief from people's lives; alongside, develop a strong sense of reality in the minds of fans that mental health can encounter anyone, even the stars. More recently, actress Katrina Kaif joined the league by mirroring her battle with depression to the public; thereby, appealing to the masses that they are not alone. Although there is more awareness of mental health issues than there was two years ago, it is still insufficient to address the nation's mental health problem. Interestingly, in a country where 14% of people suffer from a mental illness, the COVID-19 pandemic became a curtain-raiser event that revealed policymakers about the magnitude of silent pandemic affecting India's population. Are government brands taking charge of the situation? Yes, COVID-19 induced lockdown forced people to stay indoors; becoming devoid of social interactions and personal losses took a toll on their psychological well-being. Owing to this, mental and emotional well-being discussions have heightened since. Government brands have muscle power in terms of reach and resources to turn the publics' attention and 'Tele-Manas' seems like a welcome move. 'Tele-Manas'-a central government initiative aims to provide 24/7 free tele-mental health services all around the nation, with a focus on those who live in rural or underserved locations.

In India, consumer brands, employer brands, celebrity/influencer brands, or government brands for that matter have a crucial role to play in the bigger pandemic that our country is facing. Brands have bravely fought against social issues such as widow remarriage (Tanishq); LGBTQ+ inclusion (Vicks); real beauty (Dove); sustainability (Mamaearth); and girl child education (Whisper) to name a few. Mental health stigma is also a deep-rooted social problem. Strangely, there is hardly any brand that strikes 'top of mind attention' when it comes to 'uncomfortable' topics like stigmatization of mental health. Though brands are actively participating in the fight against mental health stigma; still more needs to be done. Brands are a harbinger of change. They can change paradigms with powerful advertising campaigns and storytelling. A brand's marketing communication can reduce prejudice, apathy, and misinformation about the illness through cutting-edge creativity. This in turn, would help them portray their image as 'purpose driven brands' who strive to make this world a better place to live in.

'Better marketing for a better world'-what is your take?

Chitrakshi Bhutani

Academic Associate at Great Lakes Institute of Management, Gurgaon.

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