Seven tips for businesses using visuals to stir authentic conversations about mental health

With brands increasingly being asked to play a role in education about mental health and challenge perspectives, Kate Rourke looks at how businesses can use visuals to stimulate conversation on the topic.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a toll on people’s mental health, with research showing that one in five Australians cite continued feelings of discomfort and anxiety as their biggest source of worry. 

iStock’s Visual GPS’s research finds 90 percent of Aussies would like to see more support for those experiencing mental health issues. Accordingly, more brands and businesses are bringing conversations on the topic to the forefront. 

Toilet paper brand, Who Gives A Crap, for example, recently announced the provision of staff mental health leave, while meditation and sleep app, Calm, offered to pay the fines of athletes such as Naomi Osaka, who backed out of post-game interviews while voicing concerns for her mental well-being. 

However, there is still more that businesses can do to normalise the conversation around mental health. Rather than resorting to outdated, inauthentic and stigmatising depictions of mental health, such an approach will cement a connection with customers. 

It’s important for businesses to acknowledge the struggle and also recognise the challenge of making customers feel secure and informed as they transition into a post-lockdown world. Similarly, NGOs offering mental health support need to foster an environment where those needing help feel they will be understood and appreciated. 

With this in mind, and in light of Mental Health Month, here are seven tips to help businesses ensure that they are considering all the different ways they can effectively and authentically support these types of conversations, particularly when it comes to the visuals that accompany an announcement. 

 

  1. Avoid clichés

Whenever possible, leverage authentic, ‘real life’ visuals, as opposed to staged ones. Images of people clutching their heads, sitting in dark corners or looking out at the rain are commonplace depictions of poor mental health. But they do not capture the spectrum of mental health experiences and what they look like in everyday life. 

 

  1. Prioritise inclusivity

Non-disabled, young white women are often prominent fixtures in mental health imagery. iStock’s Visual GPS’s research has found that, irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity, ability and sexual orientation, everyone is trying to take care of themselves emotionally. Over-reliance on one demographic excludes the diversity of identities and communities that experience mental health challenges. This can reinforce existing stigma within underrepresented communities and discourage them from seeking the appropriate support. 

Mental health is a focus for everybody and visual accompaniments should reflect this. Show the ways in which mental health can be maintained. This should be across gender, race, age and ability, ensuring that everyone is represented. 

In the last year alone, iStock saw a 187 percent rise in visual searches for ‘diversity and inclusion’. This is an indication of a clear appetite for widespread representation. 

 

  1. Showcase community

Common depictions of mental health issues often show people in isolation, whether sitting alone, standing away from the crowd or creating distance between loved ones. There are ways to destigmatise mental health problems and promote healthy practices. Opt for visuals that show individuals in a community setting or getting support. This can include attending a group, speaking to a therapist or spending time with family, friends or even pets.

TikTok recently launched its Wellness Hub, using visuals that focus on nutrition, fitness, life advice, community and mindfulness.

 

  1. Embrace self-care

Good mental health is equal parts proactive and reactive. According to research from iStock, 75 percent of Australians would like to develop daily wellness practices or exercise routines. 

To demonstrate the importance of self-care, a good suggestion is to incorporate imagery that shows people taking time out and participating in wellness activities. This can include a walk in nature, having a hobby or keeping a journal. 

 

  1. Move away from illustrations of brains

These kinds of illustrations can feel detached and impersonal. Depictions of the cause of mental health challenges can shape how people think. They can also affect whether or not the viewer seeks support. To better capture the nuances of mental health challenges, convey work environments, communities lived in and depictions of self-care. 

 

  1. Avoid over reliance on exercise

When depicting wellness, imagery of young, slim, happy women practising yoga is a common default. Relying only on stereotypical visuals as the main way of maintaining ‘good’ mental health can oversimplify the support needed for mental health challenges. It ignores environmental and other determinants that can impact mental health. 

Similarly, such idealistic portrayals of good mental health can increase the stigma by alienating those with more serious challenges. Instead, think about imagery of a ‘healthy reality’ – one that is attainable, encouraging and empowering, and shows a variety of healthy behaviours. 

 

  1. Avoid inaccurate stereotypes tied to violence, instability and criminality 

While mental health organisations need visuals to accommodate their services, it is important to eliminate anything that implies suicide, self-harm or other negative, violent, or explicit depictions of mental health illnesses. This is essential because such content can re-traumatise individuals and trigger further challenges. For serious cases and conversations around mental health illnesses, be intentional about the use of imagery.  Why is this image being used? What does it communicate?

 

Kate Rourke is the head of creative insights APAC at iStock and Getty Images.