By Sophie Kinderlin, CNBC Make It
Marketing mental health is a dangerous game since so many people are influenced
Open conversations about mental health are as important as ever — and social media influencers can play a key role in starting them. Sometimes, however, the line between raising awareness and marketing blurs.
“When you are depressed, everything can often seem black and white. Meanwhile, color is much nicer …, but how can you add color to your miserable thoughts?” stated the Instagram post caption from German influencer Cathy Hummels, who wore sparkling sunglasses in now-deleted photos.
“One factor that can help is light. Sun. Let’s shine. ‘Sun ‘n’ Soul Retreat’ by @eventsbych,” Hummels said in the post. The “Sun ‘n’ Soul Retreat” was promoted with videos showing a group of influencers doing sunrise yoga, poolside pilates and painting on a Greek beach, while staying in a luxury villa and posting ad content throughout.
Posts with quotes like, “Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you,” preceded content from the trip, interspersed with highlighted advertising partners. Those included sleepwear, beauty and hair, tea and jewelry brands as well as a chain of bookshops, which were frequently tagged in content posted during the trip.
Their logos also featured as the backdrop for a video in which, one by one, those on the trip stood in front of the camera, making gestures like hugging themselves, pretending to drink out of a bottle or covering their head with their hands. “I suffered from anxiety,” “I suffered from alcohol addiction,” “I suffered from mental health,” were some examples of the captions that appeared. At the end, everyone is in shot together. “STOP IT! Love yourself,” the text reads.
Outrage from followers and mental health organizations
The trip caused fallout on Instagram and in real life. German mental health charity Deutsche Depressionsliga released a statement, “depression is not a marketing tool,” in response.
“It becomes difficult when some social media accounts and appearances from bloggers create the impression that depression is merely a short-term occurrence and can be magicked away through sunrays, for example,” the charity stated. “It becomes very tricky when it is clearly used as an advertising tool to promote ... products. In that case, so-called ‘influencers’ move on a fine and dangerous line."
Hummels’ management did not immediately respond. She shared an apology via Instagram.
Hummels said she experienced depression as a teenager and wanted to raise awareness about mental health issues impacting anyone, including beautiful celebrities. “Looking back, it is clear to me that I did not always achieve this in my communications. If people, especially those with depression or other mental illnesses, did not feel as if I took them seriously or were hurt by this, I am sorry and I apologize,” she wrote.
Content from the retreat, including a video clip of Hummels sitting on a rock in an evening gown that includes ”#strongmindstrongbody” and ”#strongbodystrongmind” in the caption, is still visible on her Instagram account.
‘A duty of care’
Simon Gunning, the CEO of British mental health charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), said that acting responsibly is essential when it comes to social media conversations on mental health. “The internet is awash with pseudo-science, and whilst there is a section of people who’s livelihoods are dependent on an unforgiving set of metrics — followers and likes, engagement and reach — we should all be bound by a duty of care,” Gunning said.
The World Health Organization (WHO), citing data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, estimated last year that roughly 280 million people around the globe live with depression, and it can develop into a serious health condition. The WHO acknowledged, at its worst, depression can lead to suicide. It is thought that more than 700,000 people choose suicide each year. It is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide in 15- to 29-year-olds.
Productive conversations about mental health
Gunning said talking openly about mental health was paramount. “Celebrities and influencers have an important role to play in raising awareness and opening up the conversation around mental health and suicide,” he said.
This sentiment is echoed by the Deutsche Depressionsliga, whose statement points out that these conversations reduce stigma if done well. “Don’t portray this life threatening illness as something casual and easy or a temporary mood! Please choose your words carefully!,” a representative of Deutsche Depressionsliga said.
Making sure content is evidence-based is also key, according to Dr. David Crepaz-Keay from the U.K.-based Mental Health Foundation. “As someone that is initiating or offering those conversations, it’s really helpful to concentrate on things that have an evidence base, to share references and additional resources with people from trustable sources,” he said. This might include research from medical professionals or official health organizations, he added.
"As a consumer, it’s equally as important to make sure information you see online is from a reliable source," Crepaz-Keay explained. “Take these things seriously and slowly and particularly before you act on any anything that looks like clinical advice, check it from more than one source,” he said, adding that sense-checking this with people you trust is important.