In mid-March, the Flying Colors Foundation (FCF), a non-profit organization based in California, released their “Anime Census” survey. The organization and its stated mission to “provide the anime community new opportunities to let their voice be heard” and “create a better future for anime” were quickly greeted with understandable skepticism and legitimate criticism regarding their goals, methods, and motivations. Over the course of two dizzying weeks, journalists began investigating the organization, compounding these concerns until FCF announced they’d be shutting down on March 31.
I had my doubts about the organization from the start, but it wasn’t until I discovered that their survey asked questions about participants’ mental health that I became very concerned about the potential harm the organization could cause. As someone who works in a mental health-adjacent field, the Flying Colors Foundation’s approach to mental health in the anime fandom seemed not only misguided, but also irresponsible and potentially dangerous.
While FCF will soon close its doors, the organization’s beliefs about mental health have already been broadcast to thousands, if not more, members of the online anime community—and similar misinformation exists in society at large. Because of this, I believe it’s still important to explore the ways FCF framed its questions about mental health in the Anime Census survey, the assumptions underlying these questions, and the organization’s stated intentions for them. My hope is that this article can help individuals and organizations alike recognize these harmful ideas and avoid them in the future.
Before I begin, I would like to clarify my own credentials on this subject. While I am not a mental health professional, I work for a non-profit that creates and publishes resources for non-professional caregivers (i.e., lay volunteers). This includes researching and contributing to the development of materials on topics such as depression, suicide, life crises, and other psychological and emotional challenges. I also do a great deal of PR work for this organization, and I’ll be bringing my perspectives from both of those aspects of my job to this piece.
The Anime Census’ Mental Health Question
Shortly after the Anime Census survey launched, I learned from a friend about the inclusion of questions regarding mental health on the survey. Below are the two questions that Anime Census participants were asked about their mental health:
While there are definite concerns with entrusting such personal information to any organization, especially one that had been as opaque and difficult to understand as FCF, what caught my attention was the phrasing of the follow-up question, which only appeared if you selected one or more of options A through J, or provided a write-in answer to option L.
How has anime influenced your struggle against [your mental health issues]?
Why was this question so concerning to me? Because it contains the subtle implication that there exists a substantive, definable connection between anime (and anime as what? a media product? an industry? who knows!) and mental health—and not as situational or individualized incidents, but as a broadly applicable principle.
Merely by asking this question, FCF was promoting an authoritative idea that there can be a meaningful connection established between watching anime and an assumed improvement of one’s mental health. I had seen FCF’s Twitter account promoting tweets from people talking about how anime had helped with their mental health, so it seemed apparent which end of the scale FCF was most interested in.
On one hand, it’s neat to hear stories of how certain anime supported individuals when they were depressed, suicidal, or otherwise struggling with their mental health. Friends of mine have shared stories like these with me. However, the proper way to understand these stories is as anecdotes. They are happy incidents, but isolated ones that cannot be generalized beyond a single person’s experience.
In asking a question that implied in its phrasing a link between anime and changes in mental health (particularly biased toward positive changes), FCF was doing more than just sharing feel-good stories; they were beginning to create a narrative, one in which anime was positioned as a possible antidote to people’s struggles with their mental health. Even as an implied precedent, this is a dangerous thing to seemingly be promoting, especially by an organization that was attempting to position itself as representative of the international anime fandom.
Now, of course anime, like any other entertainment product or hobby, has the potential to be engaging, inspiring, personally influential, or even just relaxing. It’s not that anime cannot have any effect on a person’s mental state. But the danger with the question’s framing—especially considering the existing stigmas in society against seeking professional help for mental health issues—is that it could encourage people to turn to anime as a solution for their problems.
Anime is not a cure for depression, suicidal thoughts, ADHD, anger management problems, or any other mental health challenges. And the crux of the matter is that any statement that can be seen or misinterpreted as inviting such a possibility is reason for alarm.
A Hypothesis Becomes Troubling Reality
I was indeed alarmed. But even so, at that point my interpretation of the Anime Census’ mental health question was merely that: an interpretation based on the wording of a single question. A hypothesis, if you will.
Then, my hypothesis regarding the Flying Colors Foundation’s ideas about anime and mental health became cold, hard, troubling reality. In a Forbes article written earlier this week, Daniel Suh, spokesman for the Flying Colors Foundation, gave this response when asked why the Anime Census surveyed participants about their mental health:
“The intention of the mental health question is threefold: To let the community know that they are not suffering alone, to prove that anime can quite literally change lives by helping fans endure and grow through difficult times, and to understand and measure the benefits of anime on mental health. We want to help prove that anime is a global medium that could be used for good. We are aware of HIPAA regulations and, although we are not a health service provider, we are complying with its strictest rules. Any responses we receive about mental health will not be shared with anyone outside of FCF.”
Suh’s response mirrored the answer given a day earlier in a PDF posted by the Flying Colors Foundation Twitter account. To summarize from both sources, there are three reasons FCF asked about survey participants’ mental health: 1) to raise awareness of mental health issues within the anime community, 2) to prove/provide evidence that anime can have a positive impact on people’s lives with regards to their mental health, and 3) to measure the benefits of anime on mental health.
The first reason is, obviously, one I had no issue with. Raising awareness of mental health issues within any community and seeking to let people know they’re not alone is a noble goal—although it’s questionable at best whether that goal can be accomplished through a survey. My review of the latter two goals, unfortunately, is far less positive.
The issue with the second goal is effectively the same as those I discussed with the survey question in the prior section—except, in this case, it was no longer just implications. According to Suh, it was a specific goal of the survey question to prove that there’s a link between anime and a positive effect on people’s mental health.
Not only did this indicate a biased method of conducting research (setting out to find evidence to prove a point, rather than drawing the conclusion from the data), but the recurrent emphasis on anime as a positive force for people struggling with their mental health demonstrated that FCF was actively attempting to establish this narrative. Had FCF gained data to this effect (more on the problems with that in a moment) and published it to promote this idea, people who do not know better could have been led to believe they could look to anime, rather than professional help, to solve their mental health issues.
The third goal carried with it all the problems of the second (“measuring the benefits of anime on mental health” assumes that such benefits both exist and can be empirically linked to anime), but it’s also absurd because of FCF’s methodology in conducting the research. An anonymous, voluntary internet survey cannot, I repeat, cannot be used to conduct any kind of legitimate or worthwhile study on mental health or the affects of anime on mental health. The levels of subjectivity and participant bias when it comes to self-reporting on a topic like mental health, particularly without any way of confirming the veracity of the responses, would automatically compromise the validity of the data. Further, the lack of accounting for external factors (as an observational study would) presented another problem.
In other words, any data FCF would have gathered to support their agenda (and yes, when you conduct research to confirm your conclusion, that’s called having an agenda) would have been completely useless for their stated goal. Certainly, it would not have said anything meaningful about the supposed benefits of anime on mental health.
Suh’s response confirmed my worst fears about the Flying Colors Foundation’s assumptions about mental health and anime. The organization wasn’t just attempting to gather data; they were attempting to gather data for the specific, dangerously wrongheaded purpose of establishing a precedent for anime as beneficial to people’s mental health. Whether it was simple foolishness, a misguided mentality of anime exceptionalism, masked predatory behavior, or something else entirely, it was unambiguously a bad idea—one with a lot of potential to cause harm in the very community FCF was claiming to represent.
Doing Better than Dangerous
I can’t know for sure what FCF was really planning to do with this data, and with the organization closing, we never will. Despite everything, I do believe they were well-intentioned—genuinely believing they could help fans and have a positive impact on the community and industry—but just went about it in completely the wrong way.
It’s also possible that I misunderstood Suh’s explanation of FCF’s motives for asking about survey participants’ mental health. Maybe I missed a very good reason for FCF to gather this information. So, it’s worth asking: Does any of that—good intentions, possible unseen positive effects—alleviate these concerns?
One of the key principles of PR is that it doesn’t matter what you intended the audience to take away. What matters is what the audience actually takes away. And what I have taken away from the Flying Colors Foundation’s Anime Census questions on mental health—and what survey participants and people reading FCF’s statements on anime and mental health may also have taken away—is that the FCF believed in and wanted to establish the narrative that anime can improve people’s mental health.
I cannot overstate how dangerous a precedent this is, nor how irresponsible it is for any community organization to either inadvertently or actively promote this mentality. That the FCF did so, and did so intentionally, is massively disappointing for an organization that sought to speak for the anime community.
So, looking to the future, what can we learn from this situation and the Flying Colors Foundation’s misguided ideas about anime and mental health? Well, the first big takeaway is that, as a community, we need to be extremely wary of individuals and organizations that discuss mental health in this way.
The second, I think, is that there continues to be a need within the anime community (as there is in many communities) for mental health to be addressed, discussed, and considered in caring, thoughtful ways that protect people’s privacy and promote their safety.
And finally, I would simply like to propose that we keep in mind the best way to address this need—by providing people the opportunity to talk about their struggles, supporting them, and sharing their stories as appropriate. More to the point, we should do this because it’s the right thing to do, without an agenda that seeks to make anime anything more than what it truly is: fun cartoons from Japan that have brought us together.