In the last few years, it has seemed like the internet has given birth to a culture of mental health romanization. Now whether you have seen this on tumblr, Instagram or now TikTok, it does seem rather strange. Because in recent years there has been so much success by those speaking out to reduce the stigma associated with mental health. While it is fair to judge that many of these people, would have had close experiences with mental health themselves. Yet there has been a significant, maybe unconscious, movement in the other direction, generally by those also likely to have experienced it. ‘But does this not at least mean that it will get more people talking? Not to mention “Increased awareness!” ‘ Maybe, but it is going to be completely counterintuitive when it is the wrong kind! But there is bound to be a reason for it…
Contemporary Teenage Culture
If you knew me well a couple of years ago, you may have been aware that I was obsessed with “Skins”- a popular series on Netflix featuring the lives of teenagers. Generally speaking, about their experiences and relationships with parties, alcohol and drugs and with one another. In this respect their lives were far more interesting than ~cough~ some other teenagers. Now this could be a reason for attachment toward it, however it also explored mental illness, showcasing how it affected some of the most spoken about characters.
Effy Stoneman. Loved for her sassy attitude, her dark mysterious style and her all go lifestyle. Though as we really get to know her in say the forth series, we begin to see that her life is really in pieces. Nursing her severely depressed mother, being frequently used yet not really ready for a relationship while her only female friend is the bubbly, frothy, but rather naïve Pandora. She develops a serious, potentially life threatening mental illness, where she eventually gets admitted to a psychiatric ward.
Something which people need to be more aware of? Yep? Artistic licence will allow for a character who is seriously glammed up, to end up only finding herself in a seriously dark place (while viewers will hopefully realize that her life was not what it seemed). Though understandably this leads to a generally young audience choosing to produce videos combining this glamourous characteristic, with the mental illnesses experienced. However this will inevitably lead to people A) Deciding that romanticisation of mental illness is normal thus potentially taking their own problems less seriously or B) Undermining someone else’s issues, thinking that mental illness is just another aspect of modern teenage culture…
But where does this really root from?
Hollywood is the earliest trace I can find, of where mental illness was reflected upon in entertainment. Very different to how it is portrayed now, “the crazy bad guys” or the main villain in a horror movie would be the one to display certain behaviors and characteristics attributed to certain mental illnesses. In more recent times, as knowledge on mental illness has improved and as more people can openly relate to them, film and TV has been enabled to incorporate mental illnesses into otherwise “normal” characters. Skins obviously as an example, however other modern TV shows have showcased mental health in a far worse way. While now there have been examples of programs where viewers feel have got it right including; Homeland, Jessica Jones and This is Us, there is still a very long way to go before modern media can represent mental illness in a broadly honest, and realistic manner. Now don’t get me wrong, the expression of mental health on TV is potentially a positive, as it can enable greater understanding. But when it continues to be expressed in a superficial manner, it sadly bridges the way for more fake but romantic expression online. Giving the completely wrong view.
But How does this Happen?
Why do some people choose to make something of what they see on TV, in relation to their personal experience, into some kind of art? For some it is simply a “way of coping” which “lights up reward pathways in people’s brain’s” during a difficult experience. This enables the person to feel as if they are A) fighting their situation hence they’re strong B) things might just get better, and C) Maybe makes them feel better about themselves and their illness. Therefore it is understandable as to why people might try to connect their illness with something more glamourous, however sadly this can manifest into a lack of genuine understanding surrounding mental health. Meaning that many may see mental illnesses to be as a “trend”, while other generally younger people may associate negative feelings or experiences with mental illnesses, or even use a mental health illness as a way of describing how they feel!
This in itself and to be fair the reduction of stigma has resulted in many young people expressing feelings of mental illness on sites including tumblr. Generally these kinds of posts depict their pain in a kind of romantic, edgy and intelligent way- however nothing like the reality of a mental illness. Perhaps at the heart of this, it is literally helping the person cope as it expresses a sort of inner strength, and while the person may not feel optimistic that they will recover from their mental illness, at least by seeing it in a better light it makes them feel like a “fighter”. Yet, as feminisminindia points out, “romanticisation of mental illness is an awful attempt at making them ‘beautiful” or ‘edgy’ and ‘cool’ .” Yet this had further adverse implications. Because if anyone thinks they are joking about it in order to break the stigma (which I would disagree to, it is more as a coping mechanism), they would be out of luck. Instead it “feeds to the misunderstanding and misconstrued ideas people have about mental health” leading to others denying “the illness and people’s sufferings”.
This leads to concerns that the movement to destigmatize mental illness has “gone too far the other way and have now become confused with something young people should aspire to”. Because while those suffering may unintentionally romanticise it on mainstream media, not only do more people become exposed to this issue in a deluded way, but it means that people develop opinions on mental health which are substantially far from the truth. Meaning that yes, mental health is spoken about, however it is not in the way in which it is needed to be. Of course we have not gone far enough in tackling the stigma, and questioning the affects of over romanticisation is a necessary part of this, but we can see why some may hold the view of why perhaps people should be more quiet about mental health.
Thirdly it is not just media where we can see completely wrong interpretations of mental health, however the issue of mental illness is often featured in art. This hasn’t just been a recent phenom where we have seen increased drawings of balling eyes or similar pictures, but we can trace art exhibiting struggles dating back years. It is said that Van Gough, born in 1853, was known to have been experiencing “frequent episodes of depression, paralyzing anxiety” and bipolar, “which would eventually claim his life”. This had a heavy influence on his later pieces.
““Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”Cesar Cruz
Considering that mental illness has had an enormous impact on people’s lives from the past, just as it does so now, resulting in these emotions being rendered in art work it is no wonder why so much more of this is visible to us today. In a world where it is so much easier to share art with the wider public, and subsequently there is a higher chance of it being viewed by more people. Now you may think that the recent outburst in mental health romantisation is therefore nothing to worry about. Nevertheless unless you know a lot about a particular artist, if you are very smart or if you may be suffering with the illness expressed (or a combination of the three), then chances are you will glance over the art. Yes you may still be intrigued, however it would not provoke you to think what the artist is going through is something desirable, but rather you would be intrigued with what the artist is trying to convey, and probably be a little sympathetic. Nonetheless the art, or “aesthetic” that we see online is usually a lot more blatant!
So we know why people may choose to take their experiences in the wrong direction, but we also know the dangers associated with this. And we see that now this is becoming ever more apparent, as we see memes on Facebook, “low-key” promo on TikTok, and even garments of clothing on featuring the words “anxiety” or something similar. Yet most people suffering mental illness are fed up of some of these affects, as well as the classic forms of misinterpretation, or incorrect expressions. Therefore it is important that there is a cautious and considerate effort made in tacking the stigma surrounding mental health in a correct way, and everyone regarding our circumstances has a good role to play.