The good news is there is now a growing awareness of the importance of mental health and well-being. The bad news is that with this increased awareness has come a troubling trend known as mental health washing, or wellwashing.

Wellwashing refers to the practice of companies using mental health language and concepts to market products without genuinely supporting mental health.
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Like greenwashing, which involves companies making false or misleading claims about their environmental practices, mental health washing can be harmful because it can mislead people into thinking that they are making positive healthy choices when they are, in fact, not. In some cases, mental health washing can also contribute to stigma and misunderstandings about mental illness.

Image courtesy of Teen Vogue

As mental health issues increase while helpful resources remain limited, a scary outcome is the reliance of Generation Z on TikTok, Reddit and Instagram for advice. This generation's dependence on popular media outlets for mental health support demonstrates the urgency of this issue. Unfortunately, this dearth of qualified resources is sometimes leading to confused, misled consumers.

For example, the term "self-care" is frequently used to promote products that have no real connection to mental health. A company might market a face mask as a form of self-care, but this type of product is unlikely to have any significant impact on a person's mental health.

Similarly, some companies use mental health language to promote products that have not been proven to be effective. For example, a company might market a supplement as a way to reduce anxiety or depression, when there is no scientific evidence to support this claim.

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There are several examples of advertisements that have been accused of using mental health washing to sell products. One example is Dove’s "Real Beauty” campaign which aimed to promote self-esteem and positive body image. While the videos throughout the campaign feature women with diverse body types and skin tones, some critics argue that the brand used mental health language to sell soap and other beauty products.

In the campaign, Dove encouraged women to share their insecurities and to support one another, as seen when they describe each other as beautiful in the well known forensic sketch video. While the message throughout Dove’s Real Beauty campaign might seem positive on the surface, some critics argue that this campaign was not backed up by enough meaningful action or support for mental health.

As a soap brand born in the 1950s, Dove must stand out from the crowd and maintain its relevance. The brand has done so by promoting self-love, empowerment and inner beauty to connect to their consumer on a higher, more emotional level. With this approach, Dove must be cautious of the fine line between authentic support and wellwashing.

Dove's latest initiative, The Dove Self-Esteem Project, has been generating positive publicity lately. The soap manufacturer has teamed up with notable personalities and organizations such as Lizzo, Common Sense Media, and ParentsTogether Action to promote the 2023 Kids Online Safety Act, which endorses guidelines, safety measures, and resources that safeguard children's online interactions while reducing their exposure to harmful beauty content. Along with these endeavors, Dove has also released Cost of Beauty, a short film that depicts how social media had a detrimental effect on the life of a young individual.

While it’s important to draw the line between authentic support and wellwashing, it’s equally important to not shy away from taking a stance. Brands might not get it right at first, but it is critical that they continue to learn how they, as an organization, can positively impact this serious issue. Many brands, even outside of the wellness industry, are taking the time to address mental health concerns and are following up with measurable support.
Image courtesy of JanSport

The JanSport "Lighten the Load" mental health campaign is an initiative that aims to raise awareness and support of mental health issues being faced by high school and college students. The campaign was launched in 2019 in partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a leading mental health organization in the United States.

The campaign encourages students to prioritize their mental health and seek support when needed. JanSport, a popular backpack brand, used the metaphor of "lightening the load" to promote the idea of letting go of the weight of mental health struggles and seeking support to feel lighter and more resilient.

As part of the campaign, JanSport has donated $1 million to NAMI to support mental health resources and initiatives in high schools and colleges across the United States. The brand has also created a collection of backpacks and other merchandise with the "Lighten the Load" messaging, with a portion of the proceeds going towards NAMI.

The campaign has been well-received by many, with students and mental health advocates praising JanSport for using its platform to raise awareness and support for mental health. The brand has also partnered with several social media influencers and mental health advocates to promote the campaign and encourage students to prioritize their mental health.

The JanSport "Lighten the Load" mental health campaign is an example of a brand using its platform to draw attention to an important issue and encouraging students to prioritize their mental health. By partnering with NAMI and creating a collection of merchandise, JanSport has been able to make a tangible impact on mental health resources and initiatives in high schools and colleges.

How to Avoid Wellwashing
Courtesy of Psychreg

Mental health is complex and multifaceted. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for mental health issues, and it is unlikely that a single product or service will be able to address all aspects of mental health. 

To avoid wellwashing, be critical of marketing messages. Look for evidence-based strategies for maintaining mental health and well-being, and seek out credible sources of information and guidance. If you’re interested in learning how to authentically navigate the mental health space or have other examples of brands promoting a cause well (or not so well), please let us know.

Caroline Andrews

Caroline is a Bentley University senior studying marketing, media and entrepreneurship. At Compass Marketing, she manages all the Social Media and Content marketing efforts in addition to assisting with business development activities.

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