The ad industry is helping on mental health issues – but why is it ignoring its own?

Many in football generally dismiss the Community Shield as small fry in the grand scheme of football trophies. But this year’s match is set to be a special one (for me, at least) because Heads Up, the mental health awareness initiative set up by the FA and Duke of Cambridge, is announcing the next stage of its plan.

When I was a young man, I spent six months as a day patient in a hospital due to mental illness, suffering from depression and anxiety. At the time it was very dark, but I now look back with great fondness on it because it made me reassess who I was a person and what I stood for.

When I left I had learned a number of skills that equipped me for adulthood; basic skills such as listening and self-awareness, as well as larger concepts, such as an understanding that mental health is not something you can take your eye off, it’s not a quick fix. That it needs long-term care, attention and investment.

Much of this experience led us to our strategy behind Heads Up, using football to teach people (a very large chunk of males, in particular) that your mental health is as important as your physical health. And you need to work out your mind, just like you work out your body.

The campaign got its first airing during Mental Health Awareness Week. A busy time for ad land, with many mental health awareness campaigns launching.

While it was heartening to see a raft of campaigns being produced for a wide range of clients, it’s a shame they all seem to be focussed into that one week. And, sadly, many seem to be one-off quick hits, built for PR and missing the longevity and real investment that this sort of work needs to be truly effective.

It’s this short-term approach that is going to see these campaigns at best struggle to get the cut through they need, and at worst cause someone some real damage. There is a duty of care around these conversations. None of us are mental health professionals – so we’re not necessarily qualified to give advice. When you’re playing with people’s lives you can’t just wade in with a point of view.

As an industry we put time and effort into putting out campaigns but are way behind the curve in fixing ourselves, which means we are playing a dangerous game.

Tackling mental health in society, whether you’re an agency or a client, is like tackling your own mental health. It’s not something you can take your eye off, it’s not a quick fix. Your mental health campaign needs long-term care, attention and investment.

And to do this properly we need to understand our own issues. Spend our own time, as an industry, in our own day hospital, if you will, learning basic skills such as listening, self-awareness and learning strategies to look after our own mental health while reassessing who we are as an industry.

I’m not saying everyone should go through what I went through to get that level of understanding, but we can all try harder to learn more about the issues, about how to give our staff the best possible chance to keep their minds fit and healthy and make their lives easier to deal with.

No one in their mid-twenties wants to end up crying in the foetal position on the floor of their flat because they just can’t face work anymore.

That’s not to say that some people aren’t making headway in the industry. Nabs does exemplary work, as do many others – but we all need to do more.

At Dark Horses we have implemented a raft of initiatives to help give our staff the tools to work on their mental health. A few weeks ago, we went to Brecon Beacons together. Every couple of months we have a wellness day with the Naked Professor, we have sportsmen come in and a breathing coach.

The key is, though, that it’s optional. No one is judged if they don't come. If someone had offered me this 20 years ago, I’d have been grateful but maybe not ready to listen.

However, while giving people their own tools is a good start, it’s not a fix. To do that we need to really try to understand the issues our staff are facing. Have perspective in everything we do, cutting out catastrophising and understanding that people have bad days and not making them feel bad about that.

You also need to be able to create a safe space for people to fail in. It’s very easy in this industry to shine a light on the wins and gloss over the defeats – but you need to be able to talk about the defeats. This helps people become more open and understanding.

There has been a subtle change in football recently – particularly in management. The Mourinhos (who castigate and shame) are being replaced by the Klopps and Pochettinos (who praise and support) and this is beginning to have a positive impact.

Heads Up now has a home in the sport where it may not have five years ago, and players such as Danny Rose are beginning to feel comfortable enough to open up about depression.

Without being too glib, if footballers in their highly paid bubbles can learn to do it, surely, we can?

Simon Dent is the founder and managing director of Dark Horses

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