World Mental Health Day reminds us that, until a few years ago, the topic was still taboo in China, a country where psychology, banished during the Cultural Revolution, was long seen as a Western, individualistic and “bourgeois” discipline. The “China Dream” and communist concept of “positive energy,” revived by Xi Jinping, still fuels young Chinese with the perspective of China becoming the leading global power by 2050.
However, the COVID-19 trauma and two-year ultra strict lockdown amplified the “lying flat” movement, leading to more young people opting out of the struggle for workplace success and rejecting the promise of consumer fulfillment. The brutal backlash of beauty guru influencer Austin Li last month, after retorting a woman complaining about the price of a 79-yuan eyebrow pencil that she probably “didn’t work hard enough” to afford it, reveals that the equation “I work more to buy more equals I am a happier person” is becoming obsolete.
Significantly, more couples decide not to have children, with China’s fertility rate dropping to a record low last year despite government incentives, in a country where family remains a cardinal value. And with the recent economic slowdown, peaking youth unemployment rates and young people returning to their parents to become “full-time children,” the young generation seems caught in a depressive spiral.
If the Chinese population remains collectively optimistic about the future of China on a global scale, for the first time, young Chinese individuals feel pessimistic about their own future.
The topic of mental health is now definitely out of the closet in China. Besides the Healthy China 2030 government program, a growing number of influencers, popular TV series like “Psychologist,” meditation apps and exhibitions are fueling viral mental health-related discussions on social media. And besides the boom of wellness and outdoor activities, new trends keep blossoming:
- the “chillax trend” (35 million views on Little Red Book), advocating the acceptance of one’s “authentic self” and “whatever will happen,” translating into effortless monochrome outfits and a “quiet” consumption of luxury;
- the “dopamine dressing” trend, turning into a social media phenomenon, prescribing highly saturated, vibrant colors and bold pattern as morale boosters;
- the colorful “mental health mooncakes” imagined by the Shanghai Mental Health Center during Mid-Autumn Festival, delivering messages on depression and anxiety, which created a sensation.
Beyond riding passing trends, how are brands addressing this young generation facing an existential crisis?
Chinese brands — particularly in the beauty industry — are unafraid to explicitly address mental health issues, whether via their CSR initiatives, awareness campaigns or even through their design. C-beauty brand Proya was a pioneer in 2021 in its efforts to destigmatize the topic and raise discussions around societal issues based on consumers’ real-life stories.
During the last Paris Fashion Week, Chinese label Sisio, whose designer is open about her bipolar disorders, calligraphed scriptures of the heart sutra from Mahayana Buddhism on her clothes, intended to bring “peace of mind” to their wearer.
Unfortunately, besides activewear brand Lululemon, which just formed a mental well-being advisory board and multiplies community activities in many Chinese cities, most Western brands seem reluctant to address such emotional concerns.
There is no doubt that the Chinese economy will bounce back before long. Yet I am convinced that now is the time for Western brands to rethink their core messages if they want to stay relevant and connected to the young Chinese generation. I see two underexplored directions:
- Grabbing the issue of mental health by the horns, becoming vocal on the topic via relevant spokespeople and integrating it into their CSR local initiatives. Collaborations with local foundations, addressing women, college students, children — the possibilities are countless.
- As for fashion and luxury brands, they should strive to express a boundless, constantly renewed creativity, surprise their audience with audacity, beyond escapism, virtual reality or out of breath collaborations with street style or mass market brands. I believe that authentic creativity, as the ultimate form of individual freedom, can be the best of antidepressants to re-inspire youth.
Here’s the paradox: facing reality and re-enchanting the world can become Western brands’ dual mission in China if they are up for it.
Laurence Lim is the founder and managing director of Cherry Insights, an intercultural branding agency based in Hong Kong and New York City.