Anxiety and fear run rampant in the age of Covid-19, with many folks isolated at home for months, separated from family and friends, their personal and work lives fraught with uncertainty and chaos. These can be dark days, especially for those already grappling with mental health issues.
Now, two advertising creatives give vibrant voice to their colleagues' unease in "Our Silent Partner," a collection of work designed to de-stigmatize such challenges and motivate brand and agency leaders to act.
"A lot of people struggle with speaking up about mental health, myself included," says Victoria Rosselli, an art director at FCB Chicago, who developed "Our Silent Partner" with Laurel Stark Akman, freelance copywriter/creative director with credits including Google, Sony and Beats by Dre. "As creatives, we have the ability to convey a certain message in a piece of work, so what better way to speak up than through your own work?"
Rosselli and Stark Akman have forged their careers while battling anxiety, as well as attention-deficit and eating disorders. They launched "Our Silent Partner" this week to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Month.
"Our brief was simple: 'Start a conversation,'" Stark Akman says. "So, we thought, what better way to get adland talking about mental health than to turn once-hidden, personal struggles into very public creative work?"
They asked peers with various diagnoses to create content for anonymous posting. "The main thing that struck me about the collection of work is how relatable it all is," Stark Akman says.
"Alonely," by a 26-year-old male creative with severe social anxiety, is one such piece. Instantly accessible, it repeats simple lines of copy for maximum effect, and tosses in a kicker at the end.
"You would never notice my struggles if you only saw me at the office," the creator of "Alonely" says in notes accompanying the piece. "Hell, I'm always the one presenting work to clients and cracking jokes in the agency Slack. You would never think I'm paralyzed by unfamiliar social situations, but I am."
Stark Akman praises "Alonely" as "such a composed and pretty piece. It spoke to the experience of feeling one thing internally and presenting a different thing externally. So many creatives can relate to feeling like they're two incompatible things at once. I also loved the repetition of the copy—so reminiscent of the cycling of thoughts that come with self-doubt and anxiety."
Next, we view frightening frenetic activity with an explosion of color, images and text in "Awareness Attacks," a deliberately disorienting video from a male and female creative team who developed physical issues relating to their emotional struggles. (One endured intense teeth-clenching that required surgery.)
"What you see in this piece are the internal layers of stress that plague us constantly," the creators report. "Projects, deadlines, career trajectory. It all builds into a melange of anxiety. The words you see hold everything together externally for us. They represent the never-ending, spiraling thoughts that actually help us keep running from acknowledging our stress."
In "RX Only," a young female art director with ADHD created a set of prints representing the impact of long-term dependence on prescription drugs, which she took for a decade:
"Luckily, I found a doctor who supported my decision to stop taking SSRIs," the creator says. "After months of withdrawals, I have successfully tapered off them. Though these medications taught me how to manage my anxiety, they suppressed my emotions and caused me to feel numb. For so many years I mistook my mental illness as a personality trait and felt these medications were my lifeline. Now, I'm finally able to process my emotions for the first time since I was 15 years old. I'm feeling all the emotions, good and bad, and embracing them. This is difficult and somewhat scary, but I feel as good as ever."
You can explore the project's other 10 pieces here.
In a sense, "Our Silent Partner" serves as a virtual group therapy forum. It allows talented people to share their issues through creativity and let others who may be suffering know they're not alone. The site also offers information on mental-health resources.
"We've noticed that the same qualities that often make someone a good creative—being neuro-diverse, able to connect deeply with others, and see the world through a unique lens—often translate to a higher likelihood of mental-health issues," Stark Akman says. "In addition, we know that the long hours, tight deadlines, stress and pressure to perform that often dominate our work lives as creatives is not exactly compatible with caring for your mental health."
Last fall, agency Cossette addressed such issues in dramatic fashion at a Canadian ad award show. More recently, Snapchat and the Ad Council teamed up on a broad mental-health initiative. But while many companies provide access to assistance programs, "mental health has been a topic our industry has swept under the rug," Rosselli contends, and for many, the Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated existing problems.
"Some of us have been furloughed or laid off, some are dealing with the impossible task of caring for your child while working a full-time job, and others are dealing with the intense pressure to over-perform in order to keep their jobs," she says. "Regardless of what our individual situations are, we're all stressed and we're all grieving. What better time to address an issue that has become so loud for so many?"