On Depression Memes, Young People, and Mental Health

By Amy Kayman

Content Warning: depression, anxiety, PTSD, anorexia, eating disorders  

Like many others, my mental health rapidly deteriorated over the last year. I went from being mostly functional to being depressed a lot of the time. One thing that helped, weirdly enough, was memes. I follow a lot of meme pages on Facebook, which was becoming littered with posts about mental illness, from the most innocuous captioned cartoons to entire Twitter threads. When I downloaded TikTok during lockdown, the algorithm quickly assumed I’d be interested in mental-health-related content. I watched the ‘put a finger down’ trend emerge, where users listed symptoms for mental illnesses, like anxiety and  PTSD, to raise awareness of unhealthy thought patterns you might not even know you have. Yet, I was raised believing that representations of mental health online are fraught with misinformation and erase the seriousness surrounding these issues. Now I find myself conflicted about my consumption of this content, despite having enjoyed the discussions around topics that had become increasingly relevant to me. Now I want to reconcile this conflict and explore the role of memes in young peoples’ engagement with mental health.

I’ve enjoyed dark mental-health-related memes for years and used to think they were mostly harmless, before becoming more mental health literate. I didn’t think ‘depression memes’ necessarily related to serious mental health conditions, but more anxieties that ‘normal’ (whatever that means) people experience every so often. People who are against these representations, however, claim that memes may reduce serious and harmful disorders to something trivial, thus diminishing complex and somewhat tragic issues into a joke.

An extreme example of this trivialisation surfaced when certain communities glorified mental health issues on platforms like Tumblr, creating mental illness aesthetics and promoting unhealthy behaviours and mindsets. Groups like pro-ana, a community advocating for people to actively become more anorexic, were rightfully condemned for presenting eating disorders as ‘trendy’, thus perpetuating toxic and unhealthy thought patterns for many users. Yet, while it appeared all right to have eating disorders, depression or anxiety, no one engaged with dialogues or relatable posts about schizophrenia.

These observations revealed that despite there being more sophisticated understandings of and discussions about mental health since 2014 Tumblr, the line between normalisation and glorification is still being negotiated. Double standards in relation to types of mental health issues still exist, with some disorders remaining taboo despite a far more progressive culture. I also believe elements are missing from our conversations about mental health when memes are the only humorous forum for discussion. While memes communicate very relatable experiences for people suffering from mental health issues, they fail to provide practical solutions. Its fine to acknowledge there’s a problem, but without a proposed solution you may feel trapped in an echo chamber. There’s also a plethora of unhealthy Reddit threads out there solely dedicated to perpetuating negative ways of thinking, and actively rejecting positive messages and advice on how to seek help. While the above-mentioned communities are a place where people can be introduced to mental illnesses, some Reddit users have noted these places could also become an echo chamber for negative thought patterns and behaviours, or at worst a place where people might compete to prove they are more unwell than their fellow Redditors. I can’t imagine that being entrenched in these communities would give you any of the tools necessary to escape damaging thought patterns.

It’s also tricky to navigate mental health advice that is given over the internet. Platforms like Tiktok have done wonders in normalising open discussions about mental health, but I fear people might diagnose themselves or turn unhealthy coping mechanisms into self-fulfilling prophecies.

While these concerns are worth considering, I believe that some of them are outdated thanks to, ironically, the popularity of memes and how they’ve helped young people rethink mental health. Glorifying disorders is less of an issue now, largely because young people actively educate each other about the ugly side of mental health.  This, broadly speaking, has cultivated a collective understanding that memes are designed to offer support and solidarity. We’re lucky to live in a time where mental health is discussed more openly, and people have far more access to help than ever before. I’m not suggesting access to mental health information is perfect; but it used to be almost non-existent. But upon reflection, I recognise I’m in a social-media algorithm bubble where people are open about mental health discourse. Some other people are still being exposed to regressive ideas about mental wellbeing, so I don’t want this blogpost to seem as though it is undermining their experience. Rather, memes may add another dimension to how we understand and process our own mental health.

For example, interesting research on how mental health memes impact those suffering from depression suggests that sharing humorous content can have a positive impact. An article in The Conversation outlines how depression memes can actually aide emotional regulation and help people process feelings more effectively. Another new study demonstrated that depression memes may reframe negative emotional experiences as a collective suffering, therefore theoretically providing a sense of solidarity. I know that in my experience, memes are one of the few things that can distract me from dark thoughts. Mental health memes, particularly, help me feel less isolated, and offer a delightful irony for what is an otherwise confronting experience.

Despite the memes’ imperfect dialogue, the fact that this public conversation was happening at all was crucial for my well-being during lockdown. While I was growing up, I was led to believe that you were only meant to seek psychological help if you were unable to function in day-to-day life. Although miserable, being able to get up in the morning therefore signaled that I was undeserving of psychological support. Looking at memes about seeing and developing a healthy relationship with a therapist introduced me to the idea that seeking psychological support, even if you’re not on the verge of a breakdown, is an acceptable thing to do. I genuinely believe these memes can help young people navigate their way through mental health, even if only providing a starting point for a larger and more complex conversation.

Cover photo by Ibis Images

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