The role brands play in mental health awareness is at a crossroads.  

To understand my perspective, you should know that my path to marketing wasn't typical. It started in the Marine Corps as a combat correspondent. I spent a year in Afghanistan chronicling the counterinsurgency work of the Fighting Fifth Marines in southern Helmand province. But the most gratifying experience I had was the time spent with those Marines, getting to know their individual stories in the effort of documenting their lives for their friends and families back home. 

There were also tragedies and hardships. At the time, I felt pretty lucky for somehow being resilient under the circumstances. But in truth, I didn't realize that I carried stresses and anxieties into other jobs years later. Finally prioritizing my mental health, and the effort it took to do it, has made me more sensitive to how marketers approach the subject.

Don't get me wrong. Mental health awareness has definitely gotten better. Over the past few years, mental health messaging has become ubiquitous. Companies from Starbucks to Headspace are doing their best to destigmatize mental health care, and it's great to see public figures donate or build awareness. 

But there are still some very cringeworthy efforts that prioritize branding or selling over providing real help. In many cases, brands and the people behind them genuinely care. But as a person with personal and professional experience in dealing with these topics, there's plenty brands could be doing to improve.

Show up for individuals

As a brand, knowing whom you're showing up for is really key because, truthfully, it's impossible to show up for everybody. It may seem attractive to say "we're going to help everyone," but it's actually dehumanizing in a way. The people you're trying to help need to know that you're showing up for them and not to draw an audience. This requires having internal stakeholders talk to people, not just look at pitch decks, and learn how the organizations they're donating to actually work.

In the past, when I worked with a mindfulness and meditation company, for example, the company made it clear that it didn't want to donate subscriptions or funnel money into things. The company asked important questions: Where are the issue areas, whom can we show up for within those issue areas, and who's our audience there? It created an expectation that what the company was doing was designed to impact real people.

Vet your partners

Don't give money to partner organizations with the expectation that they'll go do something positive with it. If there's been any lesson from the Wounded Warrior Project scandal, it's that you can't assume that a high-profile organization is using funds in a responsible way. The NFL, the NBA, and others made that mistake and paid for it.

Brands need to make sure that their money, their platform, whatever it is, is holding partners accountable. Alternatively, if they want to put their money and effort to good use, they can dig deeper to find grassroots local groups, especially in the communities that their organization services. A brand could provide equipment to them or other things they actually need to help promote mental health and well-being. The way that you donate and help isn't always just with money, so take extra steps beyond offering cash. 

Really track the results

Accountability also means metrics are key, but you have to make sure they are the right types of metrics. Be careful saying "we helped X amount of people this year." What does it mean to help people when it comes to mental health? Also, boasting about the amount of money donated is a purely self-congratulatory metric. If you really want to care about people, listen to their stories, relate to them in an individual manner, figure out their needs, and then set real KPIs. Success means using data points that are specific to both the community and the mental health challenge.

Brands are more purpose-driven than ever, and there's an exciting opportunity to do great work in fostering mental health awareness while really making a difference to individuals who need help. But as marketers, let's just not lose sight of what's actually helping and what's not.