Open conversations about mental health are more important than ever – and social media influencers can play a key role in getting them started.
Sometimes, however, the line between awareness and marketing can blur.
“When you are depressed, everything can often seem black and white. During this time, color is much more pleasant… But how can you add color to your miserable thoughts?” German influencer Cathy Hummels captioned now-deleted photos of her wearing sparkling sunglasses on Instagram.
“One factor that can help is light. Sun. Let’s shine. ‘Sun ‘n’ Soul Retreat’ by @eventsbych,” Hummels said in the post, shared earlier this month.
The post was linked to another Hummels account called Events by CH – where the ‘Sun ‘n’ Soul Retreat’ was promoted with videos showing a group of influencers doing sunrise yoga, poolside pilates swimming and painting on a Greek beach, while staying in a luxury villa and posting ad content everywhere.
Posts with quotes like “Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you,” preceded the journey content, interspersed with others highlighting advertising partners.
These included brands of sleepwear, beauty and hairdressing, tea and jewelry as well as a chain of bookstores, which were frequently tagged in content posted during the trip.
Their logos also served as the backdrop for a video in which, one by one, the travelers stood in front of the camera, making gestures such as hugging, pretending to drink from a bottle or covering their heads with their hands. Depending on the person and the gesture in the video, a corresponding writing appears.
“I suffered from anxiety”, “I suffered from alcohol addiction”, “I suffered from mental health”, are some examples. At the end, everyone is shot together. “STOP IT! Love yourself,” the text reads.
The trip sparked outrage from users on Instagram and beyond. German mental health charity Deutsche Depressionsliga, run by and for people with depression, has published a statement titled “depression is not a marketing tool” in response.
“It becomes difficult when certain social media accounts and blogger appearances make it seem like depression is just a short-term event and can be magically removed with the sun’s rays for example,” said the charity organization.
“It becomes very tricky when clearly used as an advertising tool to promote [own] some products. In this case, so-called ‘influencers’ walk a fine and dangerous line,” he added.
Hummels’ management did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment. She shared a excuses via Instagram on November 13.
Hummels said she suffered from depression as a teenager and sought to raise awareness and show that mental health issues can affect anyone, including celebrities.
“Looking back, it’s clear to me that I didn’t always achieve that in my communications. If people, especially those with depression or other mental illnesses, didn’t feel like I took seriously or it hurt them, I’m sorry and I apologize,” she wrote.
Content of the retreat, including a video clip of Hummels sitting on a rock in an evening gown which includes “#strongmindstrongbody” and “#strongbodystrongmind” in the caption, is still viewable on her Instagram account.
Simon Gunning, CEO of UK mental health charity Campaign Against Living Miserably, said acting responsibly is most important when it comes to conversations about mental health online.
“The internet is awash with pseudoscience, and while there is a segment of the population whose livelihoods depend on an unforgiving set of metrics – subscribers and likes, engagement and reach – we should all be bound by a duty of care,” Gunning told CNBC Make It.
The World Health Organization, cite data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, estimated last year that about 280 million people worldwide suffer from depression.
The United Nations health agency says depression is different from typical mood swings and short-lived emotional responses to challenges in everyday life. Indeed, it can progress to a serious medical condition, “especially when it is recurrent and of moderate or severe intensity”, and people can suffer greatly from it.
The WHO says that at worst, depression can lead to suicide. It is believed that more than 700,000 people die by suicide each year, with suicide being the fourth leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds.
Gunning said speaking openly about topics such as mental health was a primary issue.
“Celebrities and influencers have an important role to play in raising awareness and opening the conversation around mental health and suicide,” he said.
That sentiment is echoed by the Deutsche Depressionsliga, whose statement highlights that such conversations often help raise awareness.
In raising these issues online, the charity said there were a few things to keep in mind.
“Do not describe this life-threatening illness as something casual and easy or a temporary mood! Please choose your words carefully!” said Deutsche Depressionsliga. He added that people should always tell people with depression where to get help and explain that the condition often requires therapy.
Ensuring content is evidence-based is also key, according to Dr David Crepaz-Keay of the UK-based Mental Health Foundation.
“As someone who initiates or suggests these conversations, it’s really helpful to focus on things that have an evidence base, to share referrals and additional resources with people from trusted sources,” he said. he told CNBC’s Make It.
This could include research from medical professionals or official health agencies, he says.
As a consumer, it’s equally important to make sure the information you see online comes from a trusted source, says Crepaz-Keay.
“Take these things seriously and slowly and especially before acting on anything resembling clinical advice, check it with more than one source,” he said, adding that it is important to verify this with people you trust.