Wellness washing and the glamorisation of mental health issues

Brands not in wellness should stop talking as though they are

We’re facing a major mental health crisis in the UK. According to NHS research, 25% of 17/19-year-olds have a mental health disorder, with 8 out of every 100 people being diagnosed with mixed anxiety and depression every week. And over the pond, 90% of Americans believe the US is facing a mental health crisis.

Because of this, the conversation around mental health has never been so mainstream and over recent years there’s been a significant rise in the use of public forums, such as social media, to share mental health advice and connect with others who are struggling.

But there’s a dark side to this growing conversation, and that’s the way in which the mental health crisis has been capitalised on; as mental health cases continue to soar, so do the profits of brands cashing in on ‘wellness’, with the Global Wellness Institute valuing the industry at $4.4 trillion in 2020, and predicting this will grow to $7 trillion by 2025.

The issue here is that, rather than alleviating negative feelings, this sector is promoting ‘self-care’ as a cure-all for complicated and deep-seated issues. Feeling down? Treat yourself to some new jewellery. Anxiety levels off the charts? Join a hot yoga glass. Stressed? Try our calming lavender face mask.

And it’s not just the wellness industry that’s driving this cash grab; brands across categories such as FMCG, tech, beauty, and skincare, are all engaging in ‘wellness washing’. Whether it’s telling consumers to ‘put themselves first’ by buying a luxury lipstick or assuring us we can achieve mental clarity with bottled water, the overriding marketing message is: our brand can help you be a better, happier version of yourself.

Not only do these ‘solutions’ not work, they aren’t accessible to everyone either and suggesting that these problems can be solved by spending money alienates a huge audience of people who simply don’t have the disposable income to ‘treat themselves’ on a bad day.

And here in lies the further issue with this commodification; that it has led to mental health issues being glamorised, and with that, their seriousness downplayed. You might remember a previous TikTok trend in which users joked about people without trauma being ‘boring’. Or take HBO show Euphoria: while the series does brilliantly depict the strain that depression can have on relationships and personal life, it also depicts mental health illnesses as something exciting and euphoric.

Brands and media are making huge profits through their focus on, and depiction of, mental health problems, while the services and medical professionals that provide actual support and treatments are vastly underfunded. Health care systems are overburdened and seem unable to deal with the rise in mental health issues, and according to BBC research, NHS crisis helplines are failing to answer suicide calls, with NHS England saying crisis lines had seen ‘record demand‘.

To prevent the continued glamorisation of such serious issues, brands must stop wellness washing. That’s not to say they can no-longer promote self-care, after all, face masks can be relaxing; and after a long day at work a new bath bomb really could lift your mood. But these nice-to-have mood-boosters should be marketed for what they are, not paraded as solutions for deeper-rooted issues.

And at the very least, brands that are not in the health and wellness space should stop talking as though they are. Not only is it deceitful, but it damages the reputation of brands that genuinely do help people.

Featured image: Euphoria / Flickr

Imogen Kemp-Hunt, Senior Digital Strategist, Brandwidth

Imogen has 6 years' experience working in marketing strategy across a range of industries, including property and automotive. As a Senior Digital Strategist at Brandwidth, she enjoys enhancing the customer experience and helping clients to elevate their digital offering. With a background in literature, Imogen has an affinity for writing which sees her craft content for both Brandwidth and their clients.

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