One of my new year’s resolutions for this year is to break out of the habit of engaging with mental illness jokes or ‘depression memes’ on Twitter. We’ve been using dark and self-deprecating humour to cope with life’s difficulties for years, and even as a teenager I’d jokingly say “I want to die,” or “Kill me,” or “I hope I get run over by a bus” when faced with any minor inconvenience. And now on Twitter, it’s not uncommon for Tweets such as these to go viral:
While Instagram has remained a social media platform used primarily for making your life look better than it actually is, other platforms such as Twitter or Tik Tok or Tumblr (where it arguably all began), have become outlets through which you can share the worst aspects of your life, and occasionally laugh at your own misfortune with your friends. Humour is a popular coping mechanism, but I’m starting to wonder if these casual yet frequent mentions of existential despair, feelings of hopelessness, states of constant anxiety, and passive suicidal ideation are actually compounding our misery and making us feel even worse.
So why are depression memes so popular? I think one reason is because by joking about our mental illness, we can downplay the severity of it to ourselves. Clinical depression is such an overwhelming and suffocating disorder, so it feels cathartic to dilute the intensity for even a brief moment by just allowing ourselves to laugh at it. Coping with mental illness through comedy is also a very easy way to make connections with other mentally ill people on the internet, and the format and relatability of ‘depression memes’ facilitate this process even further. Depression memes have certainly opened up an online dialogue, and I think it’s fantastic that speaking openly with our peers about our struggles with mental illness has been so destigmatized in comparison to the culture our parents and grandparents would’ve been raised in, where admitting that you suffered from mental illness was still very taboo.
However, I think there’s a major difference between normalizing dialogues about mental illness, and normalizing mental illness itself. Because being mentally ill isn’t normal. Frequent panic attacks are not normal, restrictive eating is not normal, suicidal ideation (passive or otherwise) is not normal, and recurrent depressive or anxious episodes that disrupt your daily life are not normal. I worry that the prevalence of depression memes is giving us a skewed and unhealthy perception of how common moderate to severe mental illnesses are, which then goes on to affect how we as individuals deal with them.
If you’re clinically depressed and ten people you follow on Twitter like this Tweet, you might begin to wonder if all ten of those people who liked the Tweet also suffer from clinical depression. You might wonder if they struggle to complete daily tasks the same way you do, or you might wonder if they’re combating suicidal thoughts the same way you are. Over time, as depressive humor gains popularity and the people you follow engage with it more and more on your timeline, you might slowly begin to wonder if everybody is mentally ill – I mean, it certainly feels that way sometimes. The normalization of mental health disorders becomes harmful when you begin to believe that everybody is struggling to live a healthy, happy, and normal life- not just you. It leads you to believe that your mental illness is not as severe or as deserving of care as it truly is, because after all, everybody feels this way, and this can lead to your feelings of hopelessness intensifying.
It’s difficult to have a nuanced conversation about mental health on a platform that limits you to 280 characters, and that lack of nuance is what makes interpreting those Twitter likes so difficult. There’s no way to gauge if the people liking funny Tweets about being depressed are even depressed at all – it’s not infrequent for people to appropriate terms meant to be descriptors for people suffering from mental health disorders and dilute their meaning by using them in the wrong context. People can say “I’m so depressed,” when they’re actually just a bit sad, or “I’m so manic,” when they’re just excited, or “My OCD is so bad,” when they don’t have OCD, they just enjoy being organized. Some people also use jokes about their worsening mental health as a cry for help, but now that jokes about depression are so popular, it’s difficult to tell who truly needs help and attention.
However, you could also argue that the popularity of depression memes is just an indicator that the presence of mental illness is becoming a more normal occurrence in the younger population. This could also be true, but even if this were the case I still think depression memes are harmful because it’s difficult to heal and adopt a more positive mindset when the conversations being held in online environments are dominated by self-deprecation and pessimism shrouded in comedy.
I think depression memes also sometimes lead to the cultivation of an anti-recovery rhetoric that makes some people complacent with being mentally ill. Obviously, this does not apply to everyone, but I’ve found that sometimes it’s easy to pretend as if our mental health difficulties aren’t as serious as they actually are because we make light of them so often, which leads to us putting off seeking treatment options such as counselling or medication, which can potentially be life saving. I also don’t think it’s uncommon for people to feel as if their mental illnesses have become an intrinsic element of their personality. We sometimes tell ourselves that our struggles make us funnier or more interesting people because it helps us cope, and the popularity of depression memes helps to reinforce this mindset and make it so people are less eager to part with their disorder. When your life has been consumed by mental health issues, and you’ve spent a prolonged period of time teaching yourself how to live and cope with your symptoms, the prospect of not having that illness anymore can be frightening because it’s not what you’ve grown accustomed to.
I’m trying to be more positive this year, and I think facing my problems rather than deflecting and minimizing them with jokes will be an important step in cultivating a happier mindset. Even though some jokes I see online or hear from my friends do make me laugh, I’m trying to engage with them less and remind myself regularly that taking my mental health seriously will eventually bring me more happiness and laughter than a depressing meme could ever provide.