Conveying mental illness as “relatable” comes with harsh negative consequences
Social media sites romanticize mental illness, creating unrealistic ideas about diseases
March 6, 2017
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As a pre-teen, there were countless fads that my friends and I would try. With the rising fascination with Tumblr and the media’s inaccurate portrayal, mental illness became one more trend and one more misconception.
I first got my Tumblr account when I was in seventh grade. Middle school was the peak of my Tumblr usage. Having just moved, I struggled, along with many kids in junior high, to find a solid group of friends.
On Tumblr, I was instantly connected to people all around the world. I could talk to them, befriend them, and share common interests with them. Quickly, Tumblr became my sole source for social entertainment and news.
Spending the days scrolling through my feed, “reblog”-ing pictures I liked and making a few posts of my own, I became incredibly impressionable to the entire culture that Tumblr fed and nurtured.
The culture of Tumblr provided an underground, anonymous haven for adolescents who felt alone in their various situations.
On Tumblr, anonymity was sustenance. More than that, this “Tumblr Culture” specifically relied on users finding content that they deemed relatable and reblogging it to share on their own blog with their followers.
There was little ability to trace posts back to their owner. So, with just one click, pre-teen me felt understood.
But the content remains the concern. For the impressionable, angsty adolescent majority that uses Tumblr, the site was an outlet. But as it rose as a safe-haven for the mentally-ill who could share their struggles with depression and anxiety anonymously, a counter-culture arose of those who were not diagnosed, but merely related to the feelings shared.
In doing so, a sort-of-phenomenon came to power. “Tumblr Culture” became a culture of romanticizing mental illness.
All over my feed, I saw pictures of anorexic girls verging death with an inevitable comment: “Goals.” I saw text posts glorifying social anxiety as being “shy and cute.”
Depression was associated with the ability to write complex, deep poems of sadness and smoking cigarettes. Self-harm was depicted as “beautiful battle scars.”
Being antisocial was a choice that made me somehow superior to my social peers. Unhealthy dependence was idolized through singers like Lana del Rey.
For a thirteen-year old seeing images of mental illness with pretty flowers and models smoking cigarettes, I believed this is what I should strive for. Slowly I felt myself conforming to the “sad, anti-social” lifestyle that Tumblr glorified.
Through TV and movies, I saw my preconceived notions of mental disorders supported. Most well-known was “American Horror Story’s” first season, in which Violet, the female lead, self-harms, only to have a psychotic ghost-boy, Tate, tell her she’s doing it wrong.
Months following, teenage girls lusted over Tate. He was crazy, but passionate. He was so sad, but profound. Swoon! His popular quote “Normal people scare me” was everywhere.
But the reality of this romanticizing is the harmful stigma it adds to the diseases. For my first years as an adolescent, I legitimately believed that depression somehow made a person cooler and more alternative than others.
I couldn’t see the pain it caused, because I couldn’t feel it. I had no idea what it was like to suffer from anything, so I only saw these disorders through the rose-colored glasses of my computer screen.
While the origins of the phenomenon are widely unknown, Teri Rodgers, a New Trier Psychology teacher, notes her own thoughts on where the romanticizing begins and why adolescents are so enamored with it.
“I think it starts with the lack of education on the severity of these diseases. Teenagers are so concerned with finding themselves. When they identify with one of these, it allows them to fit in while having something unique and different about them,” Rodgers said, “These connections can feel really good for someone who feels isolated.”
But the issue remains that the behavior is unhealthy. For someone who is mentally stable, the ability to merely identify with a disease for a moment limits the legitimacy of the disease.
“For the person romanticizing, these diseases can lead to extremely negative behaviors like self harm,” Rodgers said, “But for a person actually suffering, the illness isn’t taken as seriously.” Both sides end up suffering.
While it remains a trend among early adolescents, the harm it can cause can instill negative behaviors and attitudes for those who are in the process of identifying themselves.
“It’s important to remember that these are real struggles,” Rodgers said, “Romanticizing only belittles that struggle.”