Mental illness, once maligned and stigmatised, is now in a new era, with people proudly opening up about their struggles. But have we gone too far and romanticised mental illness to the point of making it desirable? WH investigates.
It started with a giggle. One post that really felt like it saw me. Saw my depression in ways I had never even considered. Before I knew it, I was scrolling through the entire feed, liking and commiserating with this shadowy account choc-o-block full of memes detailing my battle with depression with such levity, I felt that it might be all ok. Everyone struggles to get out of bed, right? None of us feel good about getting dressed? Doing the dishes? Going out?
Mental illness, destigmatised
That’s not to say that all social media use is detrimental to your mental health. Fairuz Gaibie, a clinical psychologist, notes it can be helpful. “Social media and mental health-related posts or information can serve an incredibly important and positive purpose,” she says. “Many individuals have finally recognised in themselves that they may be struggling with more than just the everyday struggles through identifying with a post and therefore realising that something more serious might be at play.” It’s also helped immensely with destigmatising mental illness. “Many feel incredibly heard and seen through posts that convey to them their very own experiences and struggles,” Gaibie says.
Bolstered by feeling like I was being seen, my scrolls through Instagram pages were endless. Instead of getting up and walking my dog, I found myself in a veritable scroll hole. I was looking for any sign that other people were struggling like me. They became bastions of my stance on my deteriorating mental health. That yeah, it was ok to lie around and stew about my lack of motivation to complete basic tasks like washing or going outside for a bit.
I didn’t realise there was a problem until it was too late and I had imbibed the personality of the memes I was constantly digesting. I’d self-isolated for weeks and foregone my weekly workouts in favour of downing glasses of wine after getting through a tough workday. My texts to friends became darker, more worrying. When I sent memes to friends, the laughing emojis were lacklustre, with some even commenting, “Everything ok?”.
What romanticising mental illness looks like
Turns out, romanticising mental illness is a well-established trend, not only on social media, but in movies and TV, too. Like how Elle Woods in Legally Blonde snaps out of her breakup-induced depression so fast? And becomes fabulous overnight? A girl can dream. Or how Lana Del Rey’s music makes depression seem romantic, beautiful and desirable.
One study notes the proliferation of mental illness online and how it forms part of creating an entire identity. “The presentation of the self, performed by a popular creator on TikTok, often implies that a mental illness diagnosis adds to their attractiveness and popularity,” the author notes.
Mental illness, but make it #trendy
“Glamourising [or romanticising] mental illness is the move from what would otherwise be described as a life-altering and impacting condition into a ‘trend,” explains Zahraa Surtee, psychologist. “Many people use terms such as ‘anxiety,’ ‘depression’ and ‘bipolar’ freely on social media, stripping these terms of their true importance and disregarding the importance of considering it an illness, rather than a mere phase one experiences.”
It’s a double-edged sword, notes Gaibie. “The comfort of seeing yourself and your struggles in a meme or article and knowing that many others go through similar experiences can be incredibly comforting and helpful,” she says. “Beginning to normalise these experiences to the extent of no longer realising the need to address and work on the struggles, however, is deeply problematic.”
Compounding this, people with mental health disorders are drawn to social media at higher rates, per one study. “Studies have reported that individuals living with a range of mental disorders, including depression, psychotic disorders, or other severe mental illnesses, use social media platforms at comparable rates as the general population, with use ranging from about 70% among middle-age and older individuals to upwards of 97% among younger individuals,” the authors note. What we’re looking for? Community, encouragement; a sense of belonging. But the community can fast become something ‘trendy’ and dangerous instead of helpful.
What trivialising mental illness looks like
You might find yourself laughing off the serious side effects of your mental illness when you should seriously evaluate what’s going on. This could be taking stock of all the patterns and habits that are pointing to something bigger. “Due to the romanticisation of mental illness, especially in the online sphere, many tend to look at it as something trendy to label themselves with, without the informed opinion of a mental health professional,” says Surtee. It’s something echoed in many responses from friends. I asked them about the rising trend and whether or not it’s affected them at all. One friend texted back, “OMG ME AS A 15-year-old being obsessed with Jeffree Star and wanting to be emo and shit.”
For context, Jefree Starr, in his early days, struggled with self-harm and this encouraged other people to do the same; made it seem cool. “He basically was a walking advertisement for self-harm and shit back in his early days,” my friend texted me. “Seeing that as a kid was confusing because on one hand, he was openly gay so that was nice to see, but then the other stuff…” It’s a slippery slope to a dark place.
Romanticising mental illness can lead to trivialisation of the problem, says Kerry Rudman, founder of Brain Harmonics International and neurofeedback practitioner, who works with people struggling with mental illness. “This can take many forms, such as romanticizing the struggles of people with mental illness or portraying it as an essential part of a creative or artistic lifestyle,” she says. “It can also involve promoting harmful stereotypes and misconceptions about mental illness or portraying it as something that is easily overcome with quick solutions.”
Prime example: me, thinking it’s totally ok to lie about all day and do nothing at all fed my unrealistic idea of life as something perpetually depressing, without getting help for what was an untreated depressive episode. “We run the risk of getting far too comfortable with mental illness or psychological distress; perhaps equating the fact that many have these struggles with it being the way things kind of just are and that this is acceptable. Just because something is very common (of which struggles like depression and anxiety are), does not mean that it is healthy to accept it,” explains Gaibie.
The way out
Psychologists see the rising trendiness of trivialised mental illness, too. “Ever since I joined social media, roughly about 10 years ago, I have witnessed only an increase in the ‘trending’ of mental illness online,” says Surtee. “Social media is not a guarded space and we don’t always have control over what we’re exposed to, leading many to gather false information about mental illness and causing them to wrongly self-diagnose. Hashtags like #broken, #thinspo, and #depressingquotes are largely popular and followed by millions on social media.”
It’s also a catch-22 since people reach out to social media for mental health support, per one study.
So how do we break out of doom-scrolling our way into another episode?
The pendulum can swing too far to the other end of the spectrum, from destigmatising mental illness to romanticising it. But there are steps that can be taken to ease your way into prime mental health.
Minimise screen time
First, you might want to step away from the screens. “Social media is not a space to seek therapy or holistically educate ourselves about illness,” cautions Surtee. “It speaks largely in generalities and not to us an individuals.” Digital detox, anyone?
Get professional help
Are the memes you’re turning to getting darker? Are you using them as a crutch instead of engaging in real self-care? A therapist can help. “Seeking professional help can help you gain a more realistic understanding of the challenges,” says Rudman.
“Check in with yourself and your thoughts about mental health,” says Rudman. “Check if your beliefs or attitudes about it are based on accurate information or if they are influenced by media or societal messages.”
Clean up your feed
Notice how certain accounts make you feel. Do they make you feel uncertain about yourself, make you feel down? Unfollow those accounts and make space for positivity and upliftment rather than comparison.