Last week, my teenage daughter casually informed me that the megastar beauty vlogger Zoe Sugg (Zoella to her 5.6 million followers) ran a Q&A on her YouTube channel about her personal experience of panic attacks. This is big news and all the more poignant with the tragic news of Robin Williams’ death.
Admirably, Zoella has been speaking about her mental health for a few years, and this patron saint of teenagers joins Stephen Fry, Freddie Flintoff, Ruby Wax, Alastair Campbell and a long list of public figures openly discussing their challenges with depression, bipolarity, anxiety and so forth. Williams, too, had been open about his struggle with depression.
Popular culture increasingly spawns more "role models" and content that helps to address stigma – highlighted by the mental-health charity Mind’s Media Awards. In judging this year’s Mind Awards, I’ve seen outstanding and sensitive coverage of this subject in the media, from documentaries to EastEnders storylines.
But nothing from our industry.
Admittedly, news content, documentaries and gritty soaps may afford greater opportunity to cover this sensitive subject – but it hasn’t always been the case.
Prolonged depression would likely be misunderstood and affect perception of professional abilities
Personally, I’m very lucky not to have experienced depression. But through family and as an employer, I know mental-health issues can be debilitating and stigmatised in a way that most physical ailments aren’t. A recent Achilles’ tendon injury I sustained seemingly carries kudos, whereas a prolonged spell of depression would likely be misunderstood and affect perception of professional abilities.
I know Wacl, Nabs and many agencies are doing a lot to address the impact of our rollercoaster industry on employees – Havas included.
But in our fast and pressured agency world, and given that one in four will experience a mental-health problem this year, are we really as enlightened as we’d like to think?
Of course, I’m not suggesting that the next soft-drink launch ad should "open on man having panic attack", but I think we have a way to go to address stigma inside and outside our industry – through understanding in the workplace and sensitivity in output.
Why don’t we have a high-profile Stephen Fry figure prepared to talk openly about their personal challenges – is the stigma that bad? Is it plausible to think that, one day, one of our agencies could win a Mind Award for challenging stigma in a non-charity brand campaign? Either way, our talented and influential industry can do more.
If Zoella can confront mental-health stigma, so should adland.
Russ Lidstone is the chief executive of Havas Worldwide London