The "Beauty" of mental illness

By: Hannah Hseih 
Open Instagram, Tumblr, or any social media of your choice. Scroll and explore through the seemingly infinite amount of content and you’ll see a variety of posts. From memes to sophisticated and professional art. From fan edits to arm-chair social justice rants. The possibilities of self-expression are endless. And ever so slowly, the waves of sad “relatable” posts and quotes are taking over. All of those unrealistic black and white images that are paired with melancholy or masochistic quotes are popping up in every corner. They highlight and perpetuate the perception of beauty in tragedy. In fact, more and more people are beginning to admire the “beauty” in depression and anxiety. But, is there any beauty in mental illness?
According to a 2015 article by Bri Ray published by the Elite Daily, the romanticizing and glorifying of these illnesses is obsessing more and more people. This “trend” is easily perpetuated by those who like posts, tag their friends under the posts, or repost the posts. This is a huge offence to those who may actually suffer from clinical depression or anxiety disorder or any other illness, because they do everything they can in order to not be in this condition.
I have seen this glorification of anxiety and depression every day, and have grown concerned in this issue. Furthermore, I volunteer at a non-profit organization that deals with women and children who face severe mental health concerns that are not beautifully tragic. Mental illness is not meant to be idolized. We need to stop the glorification of mental illnesses in social media. I hope that by discussing the issue of how mental illness is portrayed in social media, and its effects on people like you, you will all be willing to stop the glorification of mental illnesses in social media.
The glamorization of mental illnesses, specifically depression, in social media is on a rise, and it is negatively affecting those facing mental illness and those who are exposed. According to a 2015 report published by the Pew Research Center, 90% of 18 to 29 year olds use social media. Through social media, a culture has developed that idolizes mental illness, and encourages self-harm, self-medication, and suicide. These images and quotes confuse young adults, and people in general, on what it means to be clinically diagnosed with mental illness. Unfortunately, it has become quite the trend among us as people are beginning to accept mental disorders and their consequences. And while it is good that people who face mental illness are provided with a space to discuss their issues, the act of romanticizing it can lead to normalizing this issue. Greg Palatto, a psychologist at Charter Oak High School, stated in an article published by the LA Times that “the hashtags, the shared FB posts, black and white pictures of scars on Instagram--all make it common” This affects not only those that face mental illness, but those that see the trend. College students are still in the process of defining themselves, and the constant negativity that we are exposed to through social media can create a negative person. And while some may not be affected, some are. According to a 2013 article by Anne-Sophie Bine, a journalist, published by The Atlantic this increased exposure to social media has led to a rising number of people who seek out and share imagery associated with depression and torment. However, most of these people are not clinically depressed. Instead, they believe in their own pain and convince themselves that they are depressed. This ties in to the increased trend of self-harm among users of tumblr and instagram as noted by Kimberly Leonard, a health care reporter for US News. Studies show that 1 in 12 teens harm themselves through life-threatening behavior. And while most are not mentally ill or depressed, that’s not to say that the people’s feelings are not real. They do feel valid emotions, but by seeing depression and suicide expressed through social media, their views on mental illnesses are altered. This blurs the line between depression and commonplace negative emotions which makes it difficult to tell who is actually clinically depressed. This is a severe consequence of the glorification of mental illnesses as it makes the symptoms more widespread. Posts also have negative impacts on those who face mental illnesses like Meaghan Lis, a college student that battles depression. In a 2014 blog post, she stated that “having your pain displayed on a tumblr post or instagram post with poorly photoshopped images can feel incredibly invalidating. It can feel as though your battle with mental illness is simply a trend, and not something that holds significant weight in your life.” The glamorization can also cause people dealing with mental illnesses to feed into the attitude that embracing their mental illness and glorifying it as tragedy is better than tedious therapy. The focus on the people with real mental illnesses should not be neglected.
Now that we have briefly discussed the issue of glorification of mental illnesses and its negative effects on people, we will talk about the cause. There are multiple causes for this strange phenomenon, but the core reason is that everyone wants to fit in and feel special. Society enforces the idea that “it’s not okay to just be okay.” You are expected to be the brightest, strongest, best looking, richest, or most powerful in this world. If you are not, then you are deemed unimportant and not special. As a result, people assume there must be something wrong with them and begin to seek attention elsewhere. Specifically, social media. A 2011 journal article published by SAGE Qualitative Health and Research showed that people share posts and quotes on social media to receive acknowledgement in an attempt to feel special and gain attention. Like sad songs and movies, we are naturally attracted to sad posts on social media. As a result, these sad quotes attract likes and comments because users of social media empathize or relate with them. Then, this trend spirals. It is very easy for sad posts to gain attention, comments, likes, or reposts because it's “breathtakingly sad aesthetic” is relatable.   This act of shared sadness and shared feelings is growing because you are able to connect with strangers that may be facing the same situation. Users of social media thrive because they are able to develop online relationships with people who have similar interests. However, this can be problematic because it can have a negative impact on the user’s mental health.
Now that we have established the problem and the cause of the problem, we will talk about some simple solutions to stop the glamorization of mental illnesses. Although it is a large issue to combat since it is so widespread across social media, the solution to this problem is fairly simple. We need to learn that mental illness is not an aesthetic or style. Recognizing the damage that trends can do to marginalized communities is important. People with mental illness have a difficult enough time being heard without others speaking for them. We need to have empathy for others. We also need to recognize posts that glorify and romanticize the idea of mental illnesses and stop them from spreading. Although it seems like a fairly obvious solution, some posts do not seem to glorify mental illnesses at a first glance. Mental illness, self-harm, and suicide are not beautiful. Black and white photos of cuts or burns with a quote about dying written over it isn’t beautiful. We need think before we act. Think before you like a post, comment on a post, or repost a picture that distorts mental illness. If we are able to give those romanticized posts less attention, people will realize that it’s not just a simple trend. People need to stop treating serious mental illnesses like a fashion trend or a competition to have the most “tragically beautiful” look.
In order to stop the perpetuation of mental illnesses and the harms it has on people, we need to think before we act. Remember, the glamorization of mental illness in social media is widespread and a serious issue that has many negative effects on social media users and those who are facing mental illnesses. It is caused by society’s need to fit in and feel special, but it’s perpetuation can be stopped through education and action.So please, before liking, commenting, or posting another black and white image of some sad pale girl with a quote talking about how lovely death is, stop. Take a moment and picture those who are battling mental illnesses and don’t.



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