The romanticisation of mental illness isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s something that defined a lot of my friends and my, social media experience as young teenagers. Tumblr was at its peak whilst I was in school, and often what started out as looking for help as I struggled with depression, managed to turn into a feed full of aesthetically pleasing images of pills, self-harm scars, and girls crying.
When I use the term "romanticisation of mental illness", I mean this idea that is widely shared online, especially amongst young people, that mental illness is desirable and ultimately portrayed as something better than it is.
It was almost as if mental illness was being marketed to me as something attractive, which confused me greatly. "Why would anyone want to feel like this?", I often thought to myself. Why do they make it seem so "pretty"? And why are so many people sharing these images? I didn’t understand at first, until not long after I found myself sharing those images. It was the only time I’d seen people my age share the struggles I was going through, and it was the only way I knew how to communicate my feelings.
The hierarchy of social media platforms is constantly changing but there is no question that TikTok is currently the ruling platform, with 25% of its users being aged 10-19 according to Statista. Whilst the platforms may change over time, the content itself is often on a repeating cycle.
New Platforms, Same Ideas
As internet culture evolves and we (somewhat) grow from previous habits and trends, such blatant romanticisation is unlikely to go without some criticism from those who survived the previous cycle of romanticisation. It seems the content we see now has become more nuanced, the beauty of crying, pain, and heartbreak showcased across various different platforms and media styles. Sadness has almost become an accessory.
On TikTok, I’m flooded with photo slideshows of sad movie quotes and smudged mascara, but instead of the film being Perks of Being A Wallflower, it’s Call Me By Your Name; and instead of the smudged mascara photo being in black and white, it’s in grainy film. Like any other marketing campaign, the message remains the same but the way its sold is different. Sadness is sold alongside whatever is trendy at that time. The films and songs and photo styles may change but ultimately the sadness is shown as something desirable.
What’s the Problem?
You may be wondering, what’s so bad about this? Maybe you recognise that it’s not the best way to view or portray mental illness, but how harmful can it be? Well, there are multiple reasons why I believe that the romanticisation of mental illness is harmful, as someone who grew up consuming this type of media.
Firstly, young children and teens who use social media and are impressionable may act on their mental illnesses. Studies have shown that seeing suicide in the media increases the likelihood of vulnerable people committing suicide, a topic discussed in this article by Dr Valentina Zonca for Inspire the Mind. If you’re told repeatedly that feeling depressed or skipping meals is something beautiful and desirable, why would you want to stop? It’s creating an unhealthy context for discussions around mental health to be had. It begs us to ask the question: is this destigmatising mental illness, or promoting it?
It also diminishes the problem and makes it seem like nothing more than a pretty picture or quote. Something only intended for aesthetic purposes and not a serious problem. Whilst it's irresponsible to romanticise such harmful illnesses, the true harm emerges when it lessens the likelihood of sufferers getting help, and often as a result taking on an "it's pointless" outlook towards life.
But my main issue with this rising trend is, what about when mental illness becomes no longer pretty? When it no longer fits the narrative being pushed online. When the realities of the struggles of mental illness come to the forefront. And this can have many negative consequences on the person struggling.
If the minimal mental health representation you’ve seen can be neatly tied with a bow and is showcased as something inherently sought after, and when you no longer (or never did in the first place) fit that role, it can bring about a lot of confusion, and often self-loathing. Suffers may think they’re not experiencing their illness "correctly" and that they are beyond help. Many themes of the romanticisation of mental illness often subconsciously tell you that the only people that can be mentally ill (or at least "look good" doing it) are thin, white, teenage girls, and I say this as a thin, white, teenage girl who struggled with her mental health for years. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t struggle immensely, but it did mean that I found it easier to get help because I fit people’s image of mental illness. If you don’t fit this description it's likely to isolate you further.
How do we move forward?
As mentioned, this is no new phenomenon and the trend will likely be recycled continuously for years to come. But it's important to educate ourselves and others on the realities of mental illnesses and how dangerous they can truly be. It’s also time we start trying to recognise helpful mental awareness on social media, versus attempts at romanticisation, as well as checking our internal biases of what we think someone with mental health problems "looks like", and ultimately realising that anyone can be affected.
It’s also down to the platforms that allow for this content to go unchecked to crack down on romanticising and potentially harmful posts. Going beyond closing down accounts that post graphic content, but looking deeper into how mental illness is perpetuated online, and talking to mental health professionals and organisations to truly start a change.
But I also want to take this opportunity to be forgiving of those producing and circling this content. It likely is teenagers who lack the language to communicate how they're feeling, and, speaking specifically as a teenage girl, we are often taught we are nothing without our beauty, so it’s unsurprising that this trend has emerged. They are also victims of their own creation.
Helpful resource: Mind Childline SHOUT Young Minds