By Cindy Coloma

T-shirts on hangersA new trend in fashion puts a surprising focus on mental health.

T-shirts, ball caps, hoodies, tank tops, sweats, bracelets and other clothing and accessories are making statements about mental health and addiction with phrases like “It’s Okay Not to Be Okay” and “100% Sober.”

These clothing brands were created to encourage people to not feel ashamed of mental illness, while also raising public awareness and breaking down stigmas.

Often, mental illness is shrouded in secret because of public stigmas — negative attitudes and beliefs that can create fear, rejection and discrimination. The consequences of stigmas can infiltrate every aspect of life for people with mental illness. Outcomes may include employment and housing discrimination, segregation and reduced autonomy, trouble developing personal relationships and even diminished or poor treatment for mental health care.1

But can a fashion trend with this kind of messaging really change perceptions and empower those living with the disease?

Fashion Companies with a Message

Wear Your Label is one clothing company trying to create this kind of impact. Co-founders Kyle MacNevin and Kayley Reed met while doing volunteer work for a mental health organization when they were attending the University of New Brunswick. Both MacNevin and Reed were dealing with mental health issues: Reed with an eating disorder and MacNevin with anxiety and ADHD. While working together, they found strength in sharing their experiences with each other, and the idea for the clothing company was born.

In an article by People magazine, MacNevin stated, “When you start being open about your own mental health and take ownership of your own struggles, more and more people feel comfortable sharing their story with you.”2

Reed has stated that Wear Your Label designs have two goals: “to be a statement to the world, an awareness piece and a conversation starter that brings an invisible issue to light,” and “[to be] a personal reminder to the wearer that they can overcome their struggles, that they’re not alone, and that it’s okay not to be okay.”3

When seeking models for their clothing, Reed and MacNevin decided to go against the usual methods and dropped height, weight and size restrictions. Instead they asked models to share their personal mental health stories and their reasons why ending the stigma was important.

Substance for You is another brand with a strong focus on recovery. Clothing, accessories, mugs and other items include messages such as: “End the Stigma,” “100% Sober,” “Clean Life,“ “I Support People in Recovery” and “I’m Not Ashamed of My Recovery.” These slogans are meant to empower people in recovery and help them move on from addiction. Company founder Brian McCollom believes it’s a way of empowering people to say, “‘I am sober, but I am proud of this label,’ versus ‘shun me for it.’”

Their website includes customers posting images of themselves wearing the clothing. McCollom stated, “One of our biggest things is regularly getting fan photos sent to us of people wearing our merchandise. We repost to our social media followers to caption their clean and sober time for the world to see in a permanent place, and let it become a beacon of hope.”3

Effective or Dangerous?

While these labels have great intentions, not everyone believes the trend is effective or productive. Some believe the messages attempt to make mental illness cool or trendy and that this may be harmful.

Sally Buchanan-Hagen, a blog contributor with bipolar disorder, wrote, “The terror that mental illness brings is not trendy; it is real. There are no words that can describe what it is like to be in the suffocating grips of an acute episode of a mental illness.”

Buchanan-Hagen continues, saying that “portraying mental illness as trendy or as a cute quirk trivializes the damaging experiences of suffers [sic] — it’s an untrue representation of the devastation mental illness can cause. Mental illness has the potential to kill, and there’s nothing trendy about that.”4

However, others report the positive impact of these messages. They describe conversations with strangers while wearing the slogans in public or post pictures of themselves in the apparel as a conversation-starter or to make people consider our public stigmas. One company told of a customer’s response, saying “it’s made her proud to be walking around during the day even though it was hard to get up in the morning.”5

Some believe this shows the need for more open discussion to familiarize the public instead of relying on pamphlets, online searches and what’s discussed in doctors’ offices.

So is the movement helping to make the topic of mental illness more mainstream and familiar while breaking down barriers of public stigma? Or are these brands trivializing a disease into something cute and popular while minimizing just how debilitating and deadly the disease can be?

Those answers seem to rest within each individual. However, if the goal is to increase the conversation about the disease or to break down stigmas, then the idea seems to be a success. Time will tell, and so will the T-shirts.


Sources:

1 Parcesepe, Angela M., and Leopoldo J. Cabassa. “Public Stigma of Mental Illness in the United States: A Systematic Literature Review.” Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, September 2013.

2 Andriakos, Jacqueline. “‘Wear Your Label’ Brand Wants to Get People Talking About Mental Health.” People, May 13, 2015.

3 Smith, Kirstyn. “Can Mental Health-Focused Clothing Brands Help Break The Stigma?” The Establishment, August 1, 2016.

4 Buchanan-Hagen, Sally. “There Is Nothing Trendy About Mental Illness.” The Mighty, April 22, 2016.

5 Hohenadel, Kristin. “Can a T-shirt Change the Conversation About Mental Illness?Slate, January 4, 2014.