For better or for worse, it’s trendy for brands to take on social issues. Similar to my musings on Bell Canada’s #BellLetsTalk campaign, I wonder what this consumable partisanship means for mental health advocacy.
Some companies bait public outrage to capitalize on the growing social awareness of the consumer population. For instance, no one looking at Urban Outfitter’s long list of morally repugnant items can deny the company knows the marketing value of bad publicity. Actually, their strategy has been publicly called out. I’d argue other brands have picked up on the tactic, especially after the Gucci blackface balaclava scandal this past February. I’m not sure what marketing team could have let such an item slide after Prada already made this horrendous error. Brands with this much clout don’t make marketing mistakes unless they’re “mistakes” on purpose. Capitalizing on discrimination is capitalizing on discrimination, even if the blatancy is a little passé for today’s tastes. And even if it’s meant to shock, rather than reflect, acceptable public values.* Of course such campaigns are appalling, but they’re also easily understood as the publicity grabs they are.
What may be on par disturbing, is the pronounced lack of this self-aware audacity in “humorous” mental illness merchandise. If developers believe these items are genuinely funny, it follows that they even lack the social awareness to understand their own offensiveness. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is particularly popular with this genre of merch, from fondly named Obsessive Christmas Disorder shirts, to this gem, which speaks for itself. What does it say about our view of mental illness that this idea of Bipolar Disorder is sold on Amazon? How do we view Borderline Personality Disorder if we make this joke? Are these one-liners meant to normalize mental illness? Are they remotely successful? I know humour is a coping mechanism, but it isn’t always a healthy one? Perhaps, at best they turn serious symptoms into laughable “quirks,” that minimize sufferer’s experiences. And at worst, this merch silences suffers altogether, in favour of neurotypical stereotypes.
Then there are earnest campaigns, which still provide little respite from this moral grey area. This branch of mental health merchandise is typically promoted as breaking the stigma of mental illness. But sometimes awareness efforts may dismiss and/or glamorize mental illness. And the explicit intention that these items are meant to help may make the effects of unhealthy messaging worse. For an illuminating case study, the non-profit organization, Bring Change to Mind (BC2M) has two markedly different merchandise campaigns.
The first, Wear Your Label’s the Future is Stigma Free t-shirt line, donates 100% of proceeds to the non-profit. Note my bias, as I did buy a shirt, and the limited subversive capacity of the t-shirt medium, but overall the shirts appear to be a benign fundraising campaign. The slogan addresses stigma as a structural issue that we need to address. The intended purpose of wearing such a shirt seems to be confined to solidarity with the cause. It doesn’t seem to stray far from the fundraising norm.
The second is, Ban.do’s Jen Gotch x Iconery line of mental illness necklaces, which donates 100% of net proceeds to BC2M as well. I find the idea of repping mental illness bling, even in the explicit name of acceptance, a bit odd. I’m not ashamed of my psychiatric diagnoses, but I’m not sure wearing a “depression” necklace would convey the complicated but ultimately hopeful relationship I’ve had with them. Making the popular comparison to physical illness, no one should be ashamed of living with IBS or arthritis or high blood pressure, but I haven’t seen many sufferers sporting standalone necklaces either. In physical health equivalents, merchandise usually appears with survivor tacked onto the end. We embrace overcoming the illness.
But I’m not sure if my distaste is warranted. Maybe it stems from my own internalized stigma? Should I embrace the havoc of mental illness as part of my essence? Is mental illness more formative to identity because it manifests in our brains rather than a different organ? And at what point during my recovery would I be deemed undeserving of said depression necklace? I just don’t think it is the depression itself that is the badge of honour but the resilience to overcome it. Gotch seems to identify with her illness more wholeheartedly. She says, “After the diagnosis I wasn’t ashamed of the label, in fact I was thrilled! Finally a term to describe how I was feeling for as long as I could remember. I’ve never approached it as a stigma or even a handicap, but just something that makes me, me.” This approach is quite different from my own, where I really only improved my condition when I became indignant that depression had the audacity to take control of my life. I worry total acceptance would cause complacency, especially when one depression’s key tricks is to fool you into thinking that you will always be depressed. In our call-out culture, it is eery to feel ambivalent about a product, to not know exactly what it means.
This ambivalence is why I’m intrigued to follow future capitalization on the growing mental health movement. It seems with greater awareness the line between stigma and glamorization is simultaneously defined and blurred. We have created both a call-out culture and no-rock-unturned or issue-un-memed millennial gallows humour. This eclectic merchandise is a symptom of our collective confusion regarding mental health. I wonder whether the almighty T-shirt-making gods will pass a judgement one way or the other. And how should we respond?
* I won’t argue whether society is truly less stigmatized, but we’ve just typically become more subtle about it.