Have we barely scratched the surface of mental health representation in ads?

In recent years, mental health representation in Indian advertising has seen increased visibility, but it still largely falls short by oversimplifying complex issues and neglecting diverse conditions and marginalised perspectives. Critics argue that these ads often reinforce outdated stereotypes, rather than fostering a deeper, more inclusive understanding of mental health. Experts are calling for more nuanced portrayals that genuinely reflect the varied experiences of individuals and promote meaningful, inclusive dialogue on mental well-being.

Sneha Medda
New Update
mental health representation in ads

For decades, mental health in India remained cloaked in silence, stigmatised, and considered taboo. Open discussions were almost non-existent. However, as society evolved, so did the conversation around mental health. Celebrities like Deepika Padukone openly discussing her battle with depression, alongside films depicting mental health struggles, helped break the silence and encouraged the public to engage with these critical issues.

Pop culture further transformed perceptions, bringing mental health into the mainstream. The COVID-19 pandemic marked another significant turning point; as the world faced prolonged isolation, awareness of mental health issues surged, prompting a wave of brands to address the topic more prominently but there’s a long way ahead. 

Akshay Seth, ECD, Ogilvy says, “By giving mental health issues screen time, many brands have contributed to the journey of bringing mental health to family dinner table conversations. Advertising work has created social conversations and led to measurable impact, though there’s still a lot of work to be done.”  

Despite these changes, the portrayal of mental health in Indian advertising is limited, and brands often prefer playing safe. 

“Mental health is mostly talked about on a very superficial level. Brands just throw around the words depression and anxiety but don’t truly talk about what mental health means. How people struggle or why it happens. There is no “myth-busting” usually in advertisements where mental health is talked about,” says Psychologist and Content Creator, Divija Bhasin

Despite advances, representation remains one-dimensional, failing to capture the true complexity and depth of mental health struggles. 

The Problem with Indian Ads 

Indian advertisements addressing mental health often fall short in several key areas, perpetuating a shallow understanding of the issue. According to a report by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), one in five Indians suffer from mental health issues, with a significant proportion experiencing conditions beyond depression and anxiety. Yet mental health is frequently reduced to easily digestible terms like depression and anxiety, ignoring the breadth of conditions such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and PTSD. This narrow focus limits public understanding and support for those grappling with less commonly discussed issues.

Moreover, the experiences of individuals from diverse backgrounds, ages, and abilities are often excluded from these narratives. Maanvi, Editor-in-Chief at Yuvaa, highlights this significant gap, "There is a gap in representation of mental health issues because often our conversations don’t include those who are queer, or from marginalised communities." 

By not including these voices, ads often present an incomplete and potentially misleading portrayal of mental health in India.

Maanvi further argues that simply raising awareness is not enough. She states, "Awareness of mental health and its impact on everyday life is the first step in dealing with this multifaceted issue. But there is now a need to go beyond just talking about awareness and to look at mental health from an accessibility, gender, and language lens." According to her, adopting this broader perspective is essential for creating advertisements that genuinely resonate with and support all individuals affected by mental health issues.

While brands make efforts to adapt to changing times and cater to a broader audience, they often fall short in their portrayals.

Sunitha Natarajan, Director of Digital Strategy at Social Panga, critiques this approach, "In their zeal to connect [with younger audiences], brands resort to stereotypes, diminishing the issue's complexity." She insists that mental health deserves serious representation and stresses the importance of moving "beyond just a single narrative".

Unlearning the old narratives 

Advertisers must move beyond perpetuating harmful stereotypes about mental health and reinforcing stigma and discrimination.

“Mental health content needs to be handled delicately. There's a fine line between raising awareness and exploiting someone's experience,” says Sunitha Natarajan.

Divija Bhasin points out a harmful trend where brands make exaggerated claims about their products' ability to cure mental health issues. "I have seen advertisements suggesting that scented oils cure anxiety or that certain supplements can stop depression. This trivialises the actual struggles of people. It’s like saying, ‘It was so easy to get better - you’re just dramatic.’ Mental health is very complex, and there is never just one reason for struggling," she asserts. 

This kind of representation not only misinforms the public but also undermines the authenticity and seriousness of mental health challenges.

Akshay Seth underscores the necessity of authenticity when creating mental health-related content. He adds, “If a piece of communication is developed for the sake of lip service, it will show. Speak to someone or their circle going through mental health issues to gain a true understanding of the world.” 

A recent campaign by Policybazaar attempted to do this exactly. The ad showed a Kargil war hero's battle with depression. Through the self-narrated story of Kargil war hero, Ati Vishisht Seva Medal Winner, Major General Vikram Dogra, the film brought out the importance of prioritising mental health and coping with conditions like depression. 

The Live Love Laugh Foundation's #DobaraPoocho campaign emphasised the importance of being attentive to our loved ones. It urged family members and friends to regularly check in and inquire about their life struggles and mental health issues.

Creating an impactful campaign

Effective mental health campaigns require careful planning and sensitivity. Experts jot down some essential pointers to keep in mind while crafting a mental health-related campaign. 

Consult mental health professionals: Consulting mental health professionals ensures campaigns are accurate and respectful. 

Akshay Seth suggested that brands should delve into specific mental health issues rather than adopting a broad approach: "Given the gamut of mental health issues, brands should look at getting into micro issues vs a macro, blanket approach, and a few have started doing this. With mental health increasingly generating social conversations via celebrities and in other social forums, more and more brands will be talking about it in a diverse manner."

Represent diverse experiences: Representing diverse experiences and conditions is crucial. 

Maanvi advocates for inclusive narratives, "Narratives on mental health should aim for inclusivity from a caste, class, accessibility, and queer lens, acknowledging that mental health challenges vary across communities. Brands should engage with their audience to understand their needs and consult experts to identify gaps in the current discourse. Authentic representation through lived experiences is essential."

Calm and ITV’s campaign ‘The Last Photo’ took a core insight around mental health and showed the last pictures of those suffering from mental health issues. Pictures featuring people who were happy and not showing any signs of any distress but went on to take their lives. The campaign nudged relatives and friends to spot the signs and urged society not to look at mental as a taboo but to engage in proactive conversations around it.

Move beyond one-dimensional portrayals: Sunitha Natarajan stresses the importance of avoiding simplistic portrayals: "Avoid portraying mental health as a one-size-fits-all experience. Showcase individuals from different backgrounds, ages, and ethnicities. 

Depict coping mechanisms, promote open communications, and share relatable stories on recovery and growth." 

She emphasises the need for brands to address lesser-known conditions and expand the conversation beyond mainstream issues. 

"We often see depression and anxiety highlighted, but what about OCD or social anxiety? Brands can play a role in exploring these challenges and creating campaigns that resonate broadly,” asks and suggests Natarajan. 

Bournvita’s ‘Get the message’ campaign was based on learnings right out of the pandemic, which kids found particularly difficult to adjust to, and it took a toll on their mental health. Created in partnership with a mental health NGO, The Minds Foundation, the initiative was aimed at targeting parents and shifting the needle to get them to proactively check in on their kids, read the signs and remove the stigma that our society has associated with the topic. 

Indian ads have the potential to play a significant role in promoting mental health awareness and reducing stigma. By moving beyond the one-dimensional portrayal of mental health and embracing its complexity, ads can encourage individuals to seek help without fear of judgement. And brands can play a crucial role in doing so. They must prioritise accurate representation, inclusivity, and empathy to create a society that truly understands and supports mental wellness that is free of stigma. 


Mental Health representation in ads one-dimensional ads mental health professionals