Mental Illness Jewellery: Raising Awareness, or Glamorising and Damaging?

Bonnie Evie Gifford
By Bonnie Evie Gifford,
updated on May 31, 2018

Mental Illness Jewellery: Raising Awareness, or Glamorising and Damaging?

Fashion brands seeking to raise awareness with t-shirts, bags, and merchandise are nothing new. Feelings about new mental illness necklaces seem to be split on social media

Mental health and mental illness slogan merchandise can be a bit of a mixed bag. Just earlier this month, mental health writer Fiona Thomas spoke about why some of these products don’t sit well with her:

“I’m not embarrassed about having depression and anxiety, but forgive me if I don’t want to wear a t-shirt with my diagnoses embroidered across the front” she wrote.

When the topic popped up again in our office, we were surprisingly pretty split over these mental illness slogan items. We all love a good female empowerment tee, a tote professing a positivity or self-care message, especially an inspirational quote notebook cover or bracelet; but why then, are we so divided when it comes to mental illness merch?

Sparked by, a US-based company selling cute themed items, from planners to t-shirts, the debate around their new line of mental illness necklaces kicked off recently on Twitter.

The line of four necklaces each sport a different mental illness or related term, including anxiety, depression, bipolar, and 7.8 (a number which creator, Jen, refers to as a ‘magic number’ in an emotional rating system she created with her mother following her bipolar diagnosis to express she is feeling ‘just right’. Though it could also unintentionally be used to refer to the 7.8% of all people in Britain who meet the diagnosis criteria for a mixed anxiety-depression diagnosis, according to The Mental Health Foundation).

Highlighted throughout Mental Health Awareness Month, emphasised that ‘100% of the net proceeds will be donated to Bring Change to Mind to support mental health awareness’. Founder, Jen Gotch, included a message alongside each product description within the line, stressing that “I really want you to feel better!” whilst opening up about her own mental health struggles.

“It’s so important for us to open up a dialogue about how we are feeling and get to a place where we are comfortable asking for and receiving help” she says. “One thing we can all do is work to remove the stigma associated with mental illness. These necklaces are a step in doing that and I hope they can also serve as a conversation starter for people to be more open about what’s going on in their minds. Wear it in good (mental) health.”

Users on social media, however, have been calling the necklaces inappropriate and insensitive, expressing concerns that the line may instead be seen as labelling the wearers, opening them up to potential harm or damage.

Many Twitter and Instagram users seemed to miss the messaging surrounding the company’s plans to donate proceeds to charity. Other users, however, were quick to point out that “even if they’re donating the proceeds, there’s so many other ways to break the mental illness stigma besides wearing it in a cute necklace”.

Others stood up, expressing a desire to wear the necklaces: “Why am I wrong for wanting a cute way to be open and reduce stigma around a big part of my life?”

Other users went on to make some great suggestions, providing a compromise between those who liked the idea of displaying their support or experiences with mental illness, and those who found the idea to be distasteful or downright damaging.

Intrigued by the debate, we tried discussing just what made some of us uncomfortable and others open to these ‘mental illness accessories’. While we could see how some individuals could find it empowering, perhaps even a good icebreaker to discuss sensitive topics and get a conversation started, we could also see the potential pitfalls in trivialising mental illnesses - particularly ones that are often portrayed in a negative light, or misconstrued in popular culture or media.

Perhaps the debate around the stigma that remains when speaking of mental illness, as well as the growing debate around the power (for good or bad) that labelling a mental illness can have, is what sits so uncomfortably with us.

Rather than using a single word - something that can still be seen as cold, clinical or a label that can be misused - wouldn’t an icon, or a phrase, make just as ‘cute’ of a necklace without potentially upsetting half of the intended audience? By ostracising some experiencing the mental illness, how does this help raise awareness in a positive, supportive manner? Language can be more powerful than we may realise; what may be freeing for some, helpful or inspiring, may also be harmful or hurtful for others, something that can be twisted, misinterpreted; by using a single word without any context, could this not risk doing more harm than good?

Just a few we’d rather see...

  • Not just anxiety
  • More than anxiety
  • More than my label
  • Let’s talk anxiety
  • Anxiety warrior

There are companies out there that have successfully created merchandise to promote mental illness awareness, encourage conversations, and give back to charity - all whilst using sensitive, subtle language. In Music We Trust raises awareness for depression whilst donating 50% of their profits to Mind, producing a wide range of products with language that can prompt conversations whilst still allowing wearers to support a good cause without an inevitable conversation coming up from the phrasing.

Not to mention the many charity pins available for sale across the UK, from Cancer Research to the Mental Health Foundation, who promote awareness, support, and raise money without plastering a single word across their products.

Despite the mixed reactions across social media, it looks like may be on to something; the online retailer has already announced plans to restock multiple variations of the necklaces, with many having already sold out.

While a small part of us whispers ‘at least it’s for charity’, a larger part can’t help but think back to Fiona’s words on mental illness slogans: “It can’t and shouldn’t be boiled down into one word which, when attached to a person, can lead to prejudice against someone in an incredibly vulnerable position.”

For more help, support and information on anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, visit Counselling Directory.

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