Mental health may be a stigma in Southeast Asia but this is slowly changing and in this edition of Spotlight SEA, WARC Asia Editor Rica Facundo explores the changing notion of health and well-being, and how brands can help Asian consumers to alleviate their stress and anxiety.

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

Imagine a young woman sitting on her couch watching TV. Cue a time lapse of her noticeably gaining weight and “letting herself go” with hair growing everywhere.

This person was probably you during the pandemic. And you were probably not doing okay.

Then cue a tagline: “Tough times call for beautiful measures”. How would you react?

This was the scene of a controversial “Pandemic Effect” ad in the Philippines that got major backlash for allegedly body shaming a woman who “let herself go” because of mental health stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic. I reference this ad a lot because it signals a silent but growing cultural shift happening in Asia about people's attitudes towards mental health.

The Pandemic Effect ad by the Belo Medical Group

Once thought of as taboo, the pandemic is starting to lift the veil. There is a growing sense that everyone, from consumers to governments and organisations, need to better understand and alleviate anxiety in its various forms. According to a survey by FWD Group and Blackbox, 65% of people in Asia believe that mental health will be one of the most critical issues in the coming year.

But while there’s increasing recognition of mental health issues, our Spotlight infographic finds that it continues to be a taboo topic for most Southeast Asians, with less than a third feeling comfortable talking about their mental health.

Source: WARC Spotlight SEA infographic

Indeed, we are making strides but we still have ways to go. With any cultural shift, it requires a more nuanced look into the external and internal factors affecting consumers, thereby ultimately influencing their purchase decisions.

This Spotlight explores how changing notions of health and well-being can become a source of cultural value and why brands need to take a more nuanced and human-centric approach to alleviating these tensions and anxieties.

Alleviating anxiety and providing value in a multifaceted way

While today’s consumers are living in what many people call a state of “permacrisis”, we have to acknowledge various other environmental and cultural factors contributing to the feeling of stress and anxiety, such as living in the over-populated and polluted urban megacities of Asia. According to a survey by Milieu, almost four in five of those surveyed in Singapore and the Philippines find life stressful, followed by Malaysia (61%), Thailand (59%), Indonesia (51%) and Vietnam (42%).

Beyond environmental factors, Asian consumers have to contend with a collectivist culture that taught us to put the needs of our family first, before our own; accepting that suffering in silence is a love language or the price of “saving face” in the face of societal expectations.

While the causes of stress and anxiety are multifaceted, this also poses an opportunity for brands to rethink how they add value.

Accenture Song’s Brian Chien, Grace Gandi Goesantoso and Mun Yee Lee write about redressing for systemic value. “By going beyond consumers’ immediate needs and considering how systemic challenges interplay in their everyday lives, companies can gain customer loyalty and lifetime value.”

Human8’s Maz Amirahmadi found that “interconnected wellbeing” is a prominent trend in their research. “It describes our need to think more holistically about health, resulting from a heightened awareness of our well-being during the pandemic. In this context, brands must... address the systemic challenges people face and contribute to a better welfare standard for all.”

Provide permission to participate

For brands wanting to take a more active role in alleviating anxiety, whether it’s for their customers or employees, it starts with creating the conditions for people to participate and lowering the barriers to asking for help.

Change the label

In Asia, this can mean not labelling initiatives as “mental health” because of the negative stigma and shame associated with it and move towards a more holistic definition that encompasses well-being.

In our interview, Alyssa Reinoso of social enterprise Calm Collective Asia says that “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. After we decoupled this association, we saw more people becoming more curious about the topic and coming to our events.”

WARC’s Stephanie Siew writes that “these beliefs are so ingrained in the culture that it is reflected in the language”. According to her analysis, one study of Singaporean youths found that nearly half (45%) of them associate mental illness with derogatory terms such as “dangerous”, “crazy” and “weird”.

Provide different options to engage

AXA’s Sabrina Cheung says, “It's important to understand your audience and how they would like to interact with the brand… This tailoring of options for people depending on their comfort level is important. Not everyone wants to have a talking therapy session. Sometimes, they prefer to be more discreet or just have a few quick questions to ask.”

Inspire self-confidence

While campaigns that seek to address taboos can be seen as risky for brands, AXA’s Bernice Fong says that the role of brands is to give customers the permission and self-confidence to say no.

“In Asian culture, we are afraid to say no. We feel ashamed and guilty to say no, whether to our family members, to our children or at work.”

Alleviating anxiety across life stages and mediums

Everyone has heightened feelings of anxiety at some point in their life but our infographic shows that it's the youth who are feeling the most anxious. Over a third (37%) of Gen Z in SEA say they are prone to anxiety – more than any of the older generations. In Vietnam, this number rises to nearly half (47%).

Given that this group is coming of age and their spending power will continue to grow, it’s important to understand how feelings of anxiety trickle down across various life stages and across other concerns such as sexual and reproductive health.

While often thought of as “babies”, Ogilvy’s Frederick Tong and Sathya Krishnan point out an emerging group that brands should pay attention to ‐ Gen Z parents, with the oldest of the group turning 26 in 2023.

“Gen Z is the generation hardest-hit by mental health issues. As Gen Z parents start preparing for their parenthood journey, they worry about the type of future they can create for their child in the long run.”

Mental health concerns are also impacting the codes of socialising among the youth who have heightened awareness about the boundaries of what Quantum’s Abhimanyu Kumta refers to as the “social battery”.

“It refers to the capacity or energy levels that one has to socialise. Just like a physical battery, a social battery can become depleted over time, leading to feelings of exhaustion, fatigue and burnout. It is therefore treated as a limited resource.”

One emerging area where the youth are finding relief and community is through digital spaces and online communities, especially with the rising cost of going out.

Kumta adds, “The key to brand engagement on such platforms is the emphasis on community. While these spaces are often used to address issues, if it engages solely as a customer service portal, then that’s all it becomes. The brand must merely be a part of the larger community and not the centre of it.”