The rise of self-care amongst Asian youths is doing more harm than good but brands can be relevant through navigating this topic and be additive to culture by being aware of the dark side of self-care, say Theron Lim, Fika Dwirischcka and Andrea Chandraputri. Inside Culture by Virtue is a mini-series that puts a spotlight on the emerging forces that are disrupting today and shaping tomorrow, championing a diverse range of case studies and opinions across Asia – the rising epicentre of global culture.

Gen Z is the generation defined by their heightened consciousness of mental health and emotional well-being. With 63% of APAC Gen Z saying they value their mental and emotional health today more so than pre-pandemic (The Next Chapter: Re-emergence, Vice Media Insights 2023), they are far more vested and clued in on this topic than any generation that has come before them.

There’s no better encapsulation of this than the creation of the global self-care industry, currently valued at US$1.3 trillion. Self-care is one of the hottest topics on social media – #SelfCare has amassed 49.8 billion views on TikTok and 75 million posts on Instagram, with an ever-growing pool of Asian mental health content creators such as Jian Lili and Divija Bhasin.

To capitalise on this deep and growing interest, brands across the board – from beauty and food to travel and technology – are pivoting their strategies to redefine their brand and communications from a self-care first lens, elevating self-care to become the catch-all-solve-all answer to every life problem.

While it might be tempting to create yet another “you do you” campaign to appeal to the acceptance-over-aspiration cultural narrative of Gen Z, it is critical for brands to be aware of the overlooked/underdiscussed areas of the conversation and the dark sides of self-care to be relevant to audience and additive to culture. 

The dark side of therapy: Inaccessible and expensive

With the rise in overall consciousness of the importance of emotional and mental well-being, therapy has catapulted into the mainstream, creating a facade of mass accessibility. Yet, getting help is easier said than done.

Over three-quarters of Singaporean youths with mental health conditions have never sought professional help (Institute of Mental Health, Singapore 2021), despite a willing spirit to take ownership of their problems. This frustration has manifested itself on social media, with young people across Asia speaking out on the poor mental health systems in their countries.

APAC Gen Z calling out their country’s mental healthcare systems on TikTok

Their frustrations and concerns are not unfounded. APAC only has 0.9 psychiatrists per 100,000 population, as compared to 15.3 for the OECD average. When there are so few professionals, this inevitably leads to high costs (Indian families spend a fifth of their monthly household income on psychiatric treatment for one family member) and long waiting times (people can wait up to almost two years for professional help in Hong Kong). This ultimately limits access to solutions for a growing epidemic in Asia.

The dark side of conversation: Taboo and awkward

Unlike western culture where individual opinion and personal expression are highly encouraged, the collective values that define Asian culture typically repress feelings and dismiss individual struggles. This is further exacerbated by the hierarchy that governs social relationships in Asia, leading to a common phenomenon of “Grief Olympics”, where the older generation persists at one-upping the younger generation in terms of the hardships they have gone through to downplay the current struggles Asian youths are facing. All this has created the lack of language and environment for young people to engage in open conversations about mental health. 

Despite global connectivity, Asian society remains largely uninformed and unwilling to acknowledge mental health as a real legitimate problem – suicide is still considered a taboo topic in countries like Malaysia and Vietnam. Even in countries where governments have launched innovative initiatives to address the mental health crisis, these attempts have prioritised the means (new technologies) above the end (actual solutions), sorely missing the mark on tonality and execution.

Singapore’s Mindline AI chatbot and HappYouth HappyWorld metaverse have been heavily criticised for their insensitive tone and apathetic approach to mental health

The dark side of digital self-care: Destructive and harmful

With poor mental healthcare systems and unconducive societal environments for Asian youths to express their emotions, they turn to “digital self-care” – taking care of their emotional and mental well-being via digital platforms and online content. This could range from wanderlusting with travel destination videos or watching anime, to playing oddly satisfying games that involve tidying up apartments or washing houses.

However, this often precludes bigger problems amongst young people in Asia – death-scrolling, binge-watching or excessive gaming. Revenge bedtime procrastination is a common phenomenon across mobile-first Asia. While its original intentions were to take back control of our hectic lives and indulge in some me-time, more recent studies have found that it can also potentially lead to sleep deprivation and higher anxiety levels, instantly transforming self-care to self-harm.

Vice article from 2020 (left) and TikTok screengrabs from 2023 (right): Many youths in APAC are now acknowledging how revenge bedtime procrastination habits are backfiring on them, a change in tone from 2020 when it was treated as a form of self-care

The dark sides of self-care provide much needed nuance in the conversation around mental health and potentially present new opportunities for brands to harness this deeper understanding to engage audiences in more distinctive and meaningful ways.

Opportunity 1: Get creative with therapy

Mental health systems and institutions have a long way to catch up. While it is not in the wheelhouse of most brands to provide professional therapy services, there is an opportunity to explore alternative and more accessible avenues of therapy – life coach, breathing and meditation apps, or simply a balanced lifestyle involving good sleep, lots of water and pockets of rest and relaxation (What To Do If You Can’t Afford Therapy, Vice Asia Oct 2022).

Expanding the perception of therapy beyond seeing an expensive licensed professional in a clinic could be a credible and meaningful way for brands to contribute to the conversation on mental health.

House of Healers, launched by Filipino health-ed startup Mind You, is a gaming platform with licensed psychologists playing healer characters to provide talk therapy to gamers. It was created to expand access through new and creative avenues, with the hope that this could present the first step into one’s mental health journey.

Niantic latest release: Pokémon Sleep is a sleep-tracking app that aims to incentivise long, consistent rest, with the app rewarding the user with Pokémon depending on the quality of their sleep with bonus weekly missions


Opportunity 2: Open up the conversation with humanity

This pandemic generation values human connection more than previous generations:

  • 66% want to spend quality time with people around them;
  • 48% want to put more focus on how connected they feel with others.

There is even a newfound appreciation for family – 57% value family more today (Re-Emergence, Vice Media Group 2021).

However, they lack the social skills to experience the emotional connection they deeply desire. The plethora of dating apps has heightened social anxiety and the fear of rejection amongst young daters. Friendship apps have grown exponentially because we have lost our basic ability to make friends.

Perhaps in a world where we can create infinite imagined versions of ourselves via digital avatars or highly curated social media identities, the ultimate connection lies in our raw honest human selves.

Black & White, a whisky brand part of the Diageo portfolio in India, created Cards For Sharing to help strangers start a conversation with each other. The cards, consisting of a suite of 2am questions, are aimed at provoking introspection, breaking inherent social bias to help people relate to others and discover more about themselves.

Honest Cookie was a partnership between Samaritans of Singapore and FoodPanda, utilising the social medium of Asian snacks to initiate and normalise healthy dialogue about mental health. In each cookie is a question designed to help people open up about their feelings, shifting from a culture of silence to one of openness and empathy.

Opportunity 3: Initiate balanced digital self-care routines   

It is unrealistic to expect this generation of digital natives to abstain from using their phones. That would be the equivalent of cutting them off from their entire world. However, there is an opportunity for brands to encourage healthy digital self-care habits, especially brands in the technology or telco space that are placed in a powerful position to either exacerbate the problem or be part of a better way forward. 

New Zealand telco Spark develops initiatives to help children build a better relationship with all things digital. A recent one was a Bluetooth-enabled smart rugby ball to help Kiwi families achieve a healthy balance of screen time and active playtime. It was launched through a three-month trial programme and developed by leading NZ child psychologist Dr Emma Woodward.

In Australia, QT Hotels and Resorts encouraged guests to step into real-life flight mode. The Power Down package is all about self-care and getting off the Instagram grid, even if only for a short time. To encourage guests to disconnect with a little self-care, their devices are handed over for a self-imposed, minimum 12-hour break from screen time. 

In a world that seems increasingly out of their control, young people are doubling down on the one thing they can control – becoming the best versions of themselves, starting with prioritising their mental well-being. Beyond a fad involving scented candles or DIY spa days, self-care is fast becoming an all-permeating lifestyle choice. Identifying a credible and meaningful role to play in this culture today will place brands in a position to lead and shape culture tomorrow.