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16 February 2023

The NHS can’t help the mentally ill – can influencers?

Social media personalities are cashing in on the mental health crisis.

By Freya India

The influencer marketing industry, estimated to be worth around £17bn, has a commodity with which it can sell products and drive engagement: mental health.

Chatty podcasts are now sponsored by controversial medication companies. YouTubers flog products for World Mental Health Month. Influencer merch is increasingly attaching itself to mental well-being or serious illnesses: from TikToker Sienna Gomez’s “did you eat today?” sweatshirts, to the Instagram influencer Corinna Kopf’s anxiety apparel, to the YouTuber Demetrius Harmon’s “You Matter” hoodies (which he initially advertised with a 40 per cent discount for fans who had self-harmed). Influencers push promo codes for online therapy sites like BetterHelp – sometimes making up to a reported $200 per sign-up — despite controversies surrounding these for-profit platforms. Mental health content flourishes online – on TikTok alone, videos tagged #mentalhealth have more than 68 billion views – and apps offering online therapy are seeing a surge in the number of users.

This is who people might turn to when they have nowhere else to go. In England, millions of people with poor mental health are no longer seeking NHS help, according to the National Audit Office. A chasm has opened. Demand is surging – the rates of people using drugs to combat anxiety, depression and other serious mental health problems have risen rapidly, particularly among women – and conversations about mental health consume our culture. But treatment and support are straggling.

If there’s a space, though, the market will fill it. That gap seems to glimmer with opportunity for influencers. The language of mental health is squeezed into anything. Beauty regime tutorials are less about eyeliner than “mood-boosting” or “easing anxiety”. Morning routine videos often have random therapy-related words thrown in, such as “recovery” or “self-care”. Even personal tales of depression, post-traumatic stress and insomnia are priming their audience for CBD gummies. Vulnerability has become part of scaling a personal brand: a ploy for views and clicks, but also a way to wedge authenticity and pain into the glossy, glowing influencer lifestyles with which young people are becoming increasingly fatigued.

This isn’t to say that influencers don’t struggle with their mental health. Or that they shouldn’t use their platforms for good causes, like working with charities or for sharing real, human moments. But within the cascade of content – all of the “awareness” and “confessions” and “opening up” – some of it feels so inauthentic, so robotic and rehearsed, as if every influencer is ticking off the same bingo card of mental health buzzwords.

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In one example form 2021, the TikTok influencer Daisy Keech gets “open and honest” about her struggles. “I’m all about, you know, healing your trauma,” she says, speaking vaguely about suffering from social anxiety in Los Angeles. “As some of you know I’m a huge manifester… and then this brand reached out to me called Cerebral.” Keech, repeatedly looking down to read off of something, describes how Cerebral delivers mental health medication right to your door — “and the great thing about it is their plans start as low as $30 a month!” (Code: DAISY30.)

Cerebral is a telehealth company that has been valued at $4.8bn. It offers online therapy in the UK and, in the US, direct-to-door prescriptions for mental health medication, from benzodiazepines like Xanax to antidepressants like Prozac to, until recently, amphetamines like Adderall. Described as “Uber for mental health care”, Cerebral is currently under federal investigation for “possible violations” of medication distribution, with complaints that it was too easily prescribing powerful stimulant drugs. Keech continues: “If you click the link in the bio… then I’m proud of you,” she says. “That is honestly the hardest thing, the first step… and yeah, proud!”

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A zeitgeist is being monetised. Using mental health to get views and sell products undermines a real crisis. Many aren’t directing their followers to helpful resources or reliable experts, but quick fixes, gimmicky products and promo codes, sometimes for their own personal profit. Fans of influences who are genuinely struggling – perhaps starving themselves, cutting at their arms or wrestling with anxiety disorders – are left with nothing but a stream of short-term, superficial solutions to their pain, from YouTuber Gratitude Journals to discounts on a month of sketchy, unregulated therapy.

What defines this marketing, above all, is how personal it is. Most influencers use parasocial marketing tactics, building trust with their followers before selling things. They share intimate moments – like filming panic attacks or posting tearful selfies – so their recommendations seem reliable and heartfelt. By being vulnerable, they get views. By encouraging comments, their profiles get engagement. By sharing solutions and discount codes, some earn a commission. It’s bleak enough when big corporations use mental health to make money but it’s so much more personal with influencers – more intrusive and more sinister.

Influencers are marketers who exist to sell. Some might be sincere, but others are seizing an opportunity, filling a vacuum left by failing services and rising treatment costs, using words and pushing products they know will resonate with an audience that is desperate for solutions and interventions. Once you’ve spent enough time with them, you begin to suspect that not every conversation about mental health is necessary. You might even begin to suspect, as I do, that they are simply a reflection of a society that leaves no profit unturned, no demand untapped, and is intent on commodifying everything, even its own mental health crisis.

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