Mental health manifests differently in Asia compared to the West and Calm Collective’s Alyssa Reinoso shares how brands can cut through the anxiety and social stigma of mental health by taking a community-centred approach.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on consumer anxiety and mental health in Asia. Read more

WARC: Tell us about Calm Collective.

Alyssa Reinoso: We started out as a grassroots initiative during COVID when mental health services were announced to be non-essential. We launched a webinar series on how people can cope and discovered that people really resonated with the content.

Since then, one of the areas we see ourselves in is in promoting awareness. This is because we noticed that there are a lot of solutions in the market and tools innovating around mental health. But there’s still a missing piece. Before people can go to the solution and seek help, people are still struggling with the stigma to even admit that they have a problem. That’s why our mission is about normalising conversations around mental health, especially in the Asian context, so that people can get the help they need.

Even though the region still has some way to go, how are you seeing the stigma in Asia starting to change?

The main shift we’re seeing is that the definition of mental health is moving away from being seen as just an illness to encompassing mental wellbeing.

After we decoupled this association, we saw more people becoming more curious about the topic and coming to our events. Even if people are not dealing with any mental health issues on their own, they're curious and they want to be equipped so that if somebody in their community is dealing with issues, they can help out.

How has this shift toward mental wellbeing made it more accessible for people to engage?

When we expand this definition, mental health can also be about setting boundaries in our relationships, making sure that we prioritise ourselves despite all the work we have to do or about managing stress. So the challenge is not talking about mental health in a very generic way but finding an approach that resonates with people that you are trying to reach.

In our podcast, our episode on anxiety is actually the most listened to out of all the episodes that we’ve done. I wasn’t surprised because we live in a stressful society in Asia. If it’s not work stress, it’s stress about school or relationships. All this can lead to anxiety. There is a medical definition of at what point anxiety becomes a mental health issue – it's when it starts affecting your day-to-day life. But anxiety in itself, like anger or sadness, is an emotion. It’s scary. And I think not everyone knows how to deal with it or how to cope with it. And I think people are looking for answers. Now that they have the word for it, it's not just like stress. There’s more curiosity now that you are able to name it.

How is the manifestation of mental health different in Asia compared to the West?

We had a psychologist join one of our talks and she said that when dealing with Asian patients, one of the key differences she found compared to her American clients was that Asians find it harder to talk about it because they don’t have the vocabulary to describe how they’re feeling.

This is a generalisation but most Asians grew up in households where they don’t talk about emotions. If you don’t have the vocabulary to describe your feelings in the family, how are you going to be able to describe your feelings as you grow up. And so part of what we do with our peer support is just getting people to talk about how they're feeling their emotions and then deep dive into what's behind that.

Another thing that’s different is that in the West, you can say that you just came from therapy and it’s normal. Asia is so far behind. If you say that you went to therapy, the fear is that people might think there is something wrong with you.

Mental health is usually in the domain of doctors and licensed mental health experts. But now, brands are trying to come into this conversation. What role can brands play?

It’s a pretty complex question. There’s the medical aspect of mental health but equally important is the lived mental health experience. To make it more accessible means having stories of people who have actually experienced it. And in some ways, it actually helps a lot more with breaking the stigma.

If I see a senior person in my industry talk about how they sought therapy, that's probably more persuasive for me, for someone in this industry to then take the same step.

Aside from societal stigma, are there any other barriers you are seeing adding to anxiety?

We did a survey on psychological safety and we found that Singapore, compared to other Southeast Asian markets, feel the least psychological safety. Singapore is at 62%, whereas Vietnam is 21%.

We’ve done some talks specifically about wellbeing in the workplace and the questions we get are things like “If I go see a psychiatrist, will my employer know? Will they be able to see my records? Will I lose my job?”

There's this fear about losing your job or losing respect at work if you have a mental health problem. To that issue, I want to add that’s what's different in Asia compared to the West is, I think, people are so scared of that.

What has been the organisation’s approach to marketing mental health? With such a sensitive topic, what advice can you give to brands about how to create the content appropriately?

I always goes back to our why. People can smell authenticity. As I mentioned earlier, there is more noise about mental health but a lot of it is generic that doesn’t add to the conversation. It’s important to have action versus just talk.

We take a community-centred approach with Calm Circles, our peer support programme. That community-centred approach allows us to give directly back to the community but also have a finger on the pulse of what are the struggles people are facing, what themes or topics they resonate with. This informs our content and programming.

What has been the most surprising learning from doing Calm Circles and why was it effective?

The most surprising thing is how people love coming back to it. Sometimes, they want to get something off their chest but sometimes, they just want to listen and learn from others. And so it's a combination of giving something but getting something back that’s powerful.

How does this community-centred approach lower the barriers you mentioned earlier?

It's almost like a baby step for people in order to get them to see a therapist. Once you're more comfortable talking about it, then people can become more comfortable talking to an actual professional.

We see ourselves as the connective tissue to help ease the whole process of getting help and reducing the load on the mental health system. Because right now, if you want to get an appointment with a therapist in the public sector, it takes a long time and you’re not even guaranteed that you’ll get someone good. But getting a therapist in the private sector is too expensive for a bulk of the population.

What does the mental health ecosystem look like? You mentioned Calm Collective as the connective tissue and there are also mental health professionals and on-demand solutions. Any other players?

There are the crisis hotlines. Before the pandemic, they were traditionally the ones where awareness campaigns got people to call their hotline. But I almost feel like that's too late. We want less people reaching that at-risk stage. There are also only a limited number of volunteers who can take so many calls.

So we ask how we can build more resilient communities on whom one can fall back on to help us externalise those emotions before one becomes at-risk? That's the theory. That's what we're trying to build.

Usually, challenging the norm brings risks. What are the benefits for brands spearheading the wellbeing movement in in Asia? What role can they play in this ecosystem you mentioned?

I don't feel like it's challenging the norm anymore. It is the norm to talk about mental health. And I don't think it's risky. There may be specific topics that may still be taboo but my advice is to always handle the topic with care and compassion, and always go back to why you are doing this campaign. Who is it for? Who is going to experience this content? And can it be interpreted differently and/or negatively, or have some negative impacts for certain groups?

The other thing is, make sure you're not promoting something wrong or harmful. So for example, toxic positivity is the easiest risk pitfall that brands might fall into. These are very real issues. But if you handled it with compassion, with care, there's less risk of that kind of negative implication.