Earlier this month, Time devoted a cover not to the presidential election, but to the burgeoning teen mental health crisis. The figures are staggering. Out of about 25 million teens 12 - 17 living in the U.S., about 3 million (or 12%) have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. More than 2 million have depression so severe that it affects their ability to function. Just over six million teens (or 25%) have an anxiety disorder, with girls 50% more likely than boys to experience one. And experts consider these figures to be conservative since so many teens don’t get the treatment they need and are secretive about their suffering.
Besides the genetic component, what environmental factors are contributing to so much anxiety and depression? Today’s teens grew up in a post-9/11, post-Iraq, post-Great Recession world filled with economic and geopolitical instability. They constantly see acts of terrorism and school violence in the news. Excelling at school, sports and activities can feel like more than a full-time job. Many think they won’t experience the same standard of living as their parents. The fight for racial, gender and sexual equality has led to many advancements but has also roiled culture and led to a sharp backlash. And, of course, technology and social media are ever-present, so popularity can be tracked minute to minute, humiliations can go viral, and Instagram images can represent impossible ideals of perfection.
Given all of these challenges, what can brands do to promote better mental health among their teen customers? Realistically, they can’t and shouldn’t be psychiatrists, but a little bit of empathy can go a long way:
*Host a sanctuary for self-expression. Within your social media feeds and online discussion forums, aggressively patrol for and delete trolls, hate speech and personal insults. Make sure that your teen customers feel comfortable sharing their opinions, ideas and personal stories. Immediately set a tone of kindness and respect, and let teens know that they should feel free to be their authentic selves, but that anything they say that stops others from doing the same will not be tolerated. Moderate in real time, since disrespect can flourish like weeds in a garden, and those weeds need to be constantly tended.
*Provide resources and peer counseling. Teens are looking for relevant advice on issues that they don’t feel comfortable sharing with their parents or teachers. Within reason, your brand has license to provide that advice. If you’re an athletic brand, consider a discussion forum on how student athletes balance practice with academics and a social life, and how they handle competition. If you’re a food/QSR brand, consider providing information about exercise, nutrition and enjoying the food as part of a well-balanced diet and healthy lifestyle. If you’re an automotive brand, teach how to avoid distracted driving. Information is particularly helpful if it comes from other teens, or features their first-person stories.
*Offer relevant, realistic, attainable imagery. Double-check the wording and imagery of your communications, with copy testing if necessary, to ensure you aren’t “part of the problem.” Do your photos show size 2 models living a lifestyle that only the 1% can attain? Does any of your wording accidentally (or intentionally) disinvite a large group of potential customers? Are you relying on outdated stereotypes in your messaging, perhaps in a lame attempt at humor, or in an attempt to present teen life as it was in 1955? Eliminating these offenses goes a long way toward making teens feel better about themselves, your brand and their relationship with it.
In the famous words of Hillary Clinton, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Brands are part of those villages and must do their part to promote the mental and physical health of their most vulnerable members.