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The nation’s schools temporarily closed their doors due to coronavirus, but mental health challenges continued to affect many students in the U.S. Of the 20 million people who were enrolled in American colleges and universities last fall, nearly half (45 percent) reported experiencing feelings of hopelessness over the past 12 months, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. For grade school students, ages 13 to 17—there are 56 million students attending elementary and secondary schools nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics—Pew Research Center reports that seven out of 10 feel their mental health is weighing them down.

Learning of these statistics, and with students comprising a large segment of its customers, backpack brand JanSport decided to conduct its own research and found that the top concern for Gen Z (people ages five to 25) is mental health. In response, the company launched #LightenTheLoad, a campaign by creative agencies Haymaker and Ruby Pseudo—which kicked off in May in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month and ran through August—with a mission “to connect people with real tools to unpack the mental health crisis.” 

The program included a series of live conversations on Instagram—a platform that is used by 73 percent of Gen Z, according to a study by Adobe Advertising—featuring talks led by three mental health professionals: Nedraw Tawaab, a licensed therapist, relationship expert and founder of group therapy practice Kaleidoscope Consulting; Matthew Dempsey, a licensed professional clinical counselor specializing in sexuality, culture and confidence; and Whitney Goodman, a licensed marriage and family therapist who works toward making mental health information more available and easy to understand. The therapists led discussions that centered on isolation, uncertainty, compassion fatigue and family, and for those who were unable to catch the live discussion, the videos are housed on a webpage created for the cause:

In addition to these videos, the webpage features a curated film series created by JanSport of young people sharing their own mental health journeys. Further intended to open the conversation, no actors were used in the series and topics discussed family conflict, depression and anxiety, personal identity and learning how to talk about mental health. The webpage also includes helpful links to mental health resources, directing searches with questions, such as “How do I know if someone is struggling with mental health?” and “How do I find the right therapist?”

JanSport’s decision to become an active participant in the mental health conversation communicates to its customers that the brand is listening to its customers’ needs and it’s willing to help. Along with providing thousands of students each year with their go-to backpack or bag, JanSport now also presents itself as a brand that’s interested in learning about the personal challenges of its customers, views these challenges as serious and is working toward a solution by opening the conversation further. The brand brought the campaign full circle with a relevant hash tag #LightenTheLoad, which ties the campaign back to JanSport’s signature product while also reflecting the campaign’s purpose.


Danielle Renda is associate editor of PPB.