TRIGGER WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS CONTENT ABOUT SUICIDE, ANXIETY AND EATING DISORDERS.
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Directly below the caption sits a stock photo of a bespectacled young man, dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie.
He’s forcing a noose over his head.
Whether this situation offends you, evokes relatability, or makes you scream ‘me!’ and tag your friends, it epitomises a social media trend that has been circulating news feeds for some time now – the mental illness meme.
Combine that with today’s day and age, where we spend so much of our time communicating online, and it’s no surprise that we’ve moulded the two together into some sort of self-deprecating joke.
But is laughter the best medicine? Let’s take a closer look.
Pro: memes ‘ease’ the discussion of mental health
For most people, broaching the subject of mental health isn’t easy, but memes are bridging this gap.
“For people who aren’t very in touch with their emotions, who struggle to express how they’re feeling – it definitely helps them,” they said.
“People often come out and share how they’re feeling because they have memes to ease the conversation of mental health.”
As well as a short, snappy caption, memes provide a visual representation for feelings and emotions. The Youth Reference Group says this is just as effective for communicating the state of someone’s mental wellbeing.
“Memes are easier to share because it’s lighter conversation if it’s just short and sharp,” they said.
Con: memes ‘desensitise’ and ‘romanticise’ serious issues
Although mental health memes have sparked much-needed conversation, criticism has arisen to their stigmatisation of mental illness.
Ayden, 21, is a Residential Advisor at on-campus accommodation at the University of Canberra. He says that people’s sensitivities are often overlooked when it comes to memes about mental illness.
“Society is becoming more and more okay with jokes about death and taking your own life,” he said.
In his role as a Residential Advisor, Ayden assists with technical after-hours help and pastoral care duties, and has recently undergone a Mental Health First Aid Training course to better prepare himself for on-campus emergencies. Whilst he hasn’t personally experienced a mental health condition, his job has led him to respond to a suicide attempt, depressive states and anxiety attacks.
Though he appreciates the humour and relatability in some mental illness memes, he stresses they can be harmful.
“Today’s society looks at weakness as a laughing matter – that’s no different from in the past – but memes are a less personable way of doing it. Your name isn’t along with it, unless you tag yourself,” he said.
“Desensitising these issues and making them more mythical and misunderstood is the negative effect of this circulation.”
Ayden says memes can be misinterpreted by people who do not have a personal understanding of mental illness.
“For people that haven’t experienced it personally, we are being desentised, and in doing so we are stigmatising it,” he said.
“When you see those jokes, we do take it at face value. And we are making those associations that, okay, depression equals suicide and anxiety equals panic attacks.”
Similarly, the Youth Reference Group from Headspace say the mass circulation and dark humour that is so often attached to mental illness memes can lessen the importance of the matter.
“They can romanticise some very serious mental health issues,” they said.
“In an unhealthy way, the idea of mental illness is diminished because it has become a joke.”
Pro: memes create an online community, sufferers feel ‘less alone’
With tags, shares, forums, retweets, and regrams, social media is home to a spiralling web of unique communities.
Take @MyTherapistSays for example. Creators Lola Tash and Nicole Argiris have amassed over 2.6 million followers by posting self-deprecating memes about making poor, yet relatable life decisions, and having mental breakdowns.
Similarly, Instagram account @binchcity regularly posts dark-humoured memes about mental illness. The admin behind the account is Julia, a 20-year-old Psychology Major from New York City. She began creating memes as a mechanism to cope with depression, and in 18 months she has garnered over 40,000 followers.
“I was going through a hard time mentally, and I honestly thought making jokes about it helped,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to laugh at things that are painful.”
Julia says the creation of her account has not only helped herself, but it has helped her connect with her followers.
“I’ve had followers reach out to me and say that my content has helped them.”
“I’ve gotten a couple of people who ask about medications and therapy as well,” she said.
Julia says her account’s success comes down to ‘universal’ experiences.
“It’s been interesting to see that a lot of people think the way I do,” she said.
For Sharn, 21, these communities, along with the support of her family, friends and partner, have helped her overcome her anxiety and depression.
“I have really irrational thoughts, like, something bad is going to happen… or if something bad doesn’t happen, I sort of find the ‘What if?’ moment,” she said.
“Memes let me go ‘You are being ridiculous!’ and I’m able to move on a bit quicker.”
Whilst she finds spending too much time on apps like Instagram and Facebook can cause her anxiety to flare up, Sharn says mental illness memes have helped her feel ‘less alone.’
“Being online in general has helped because it opened up that community,” she said.
“Other people are commenting and making jokes out of it, and you kind of know that you’re not alone any more.”
She says that being online has also exposed her to mutual friends who are engaging with similar communities and content. She says this discovery often makes her take a step back.
“It was because somebody that I was friends with online had commented on it, and I’m like ‘Oh, I never thought about that, or about them like that’.”
Con: memes only humour ‘socially acceptable’ disorders
A meme is a form of self-expression; but it is also a form of entertainment.
Whilst memes that humour depression and anxiety frequent news feeds regularly, memes that deal with eating disorders are much more difficult to stumble across. So much so, they are often attached with a ‘content advisory’ warning.
This warning, employed by apps such as Instagram and Tumblr, is designed to appear when users are searching tags that may put them at risk of harming themselves.
Julia from @binchcity says that whilst eating disorders are often linked with depression and anxiety, they are not to be taken lightly.
“Eating disorders can be competitive and compulsive,” she said.
“A lot of people who have eating disorders have depression and or anxiety, but eating disorders are a very specific set of behaviours, as opposed to depression and anxiety, which are just labels for kinds of feelings.
But whilst memes concerning eating disorders may trigger negative behaviour, on the wrong day, couldn’t a meme with an image of a noose be detrimental to someone who isn’t feeling okay? This grey area in which it’s only okay to joke about certain mental illnesses, is reflective of how society treats them.
Katie, 22, has suffered anorexia and bulimia for the past six years. While she hasn’t fully recovered, she is much more comfortable in her skin than where she was two years ago.
Katie says the difference between anxiety and depression, and eating disorders, is what people find ‘socially acceptable’ to talk about.
“My friends never, ever spoke about it. At the time, it kind of made me think nothing was wrong.”
“People accept anxiety more than they accept eating disorders. People are happier to talk about anxiety than they are to talk about eating disorders,” she said.
“Even look at ads. You’re always surrounded by anxiety and depression ads. But eating disorders… well, they’re a no-go area.”
While she can relate to memes about eating disorders, she believes they should be ‘more recovery-focused’.
“There needs to be more awareness around eating disorders. So many people have eating disorders – even obesity, that’s an eating disorder. But no one speaks about it.”
Pro: memes can provide insight
For people who haven’t experienced a mental health condition, memes can provide a level of understanding as to what it’s like to live with a mental illness.
For Sharn, sharing anxiety memes with her partner and sister is an easy way to communicate her feelings to help them better understand.
“I tag my sister… I show them to my boyfriend. I think that’s why they’re funny – I can relate to them. I go ‘Yep! Happens to me all the time’.”
Similarly, Katie finds memes about anxiety positive.
“When I was sick, I was a very anxious person… like, simple things. At university I was so nervous all the time over nothing,” she said.
“I can relate, and overall, I think mental illness memes are good, because they provide others with an insight into what it really feels like.”
Con: memes can trigger harmful behaviour
The content advisory warnings displayed above, were introduced by Instagram in 2012, and Tumblr to combat self-harming behaviour.
Many meme admins have followed suit, creating their own trigger warnings to shelter potentially harmful posts. @meme.queen.satan regularly posts memes about eating disorders, in which followers have to swipe the trigger warning away to view the content. The account @sadboi_aesthetic_ has a trigger warning in it’s bio reading: ‘my memes are almost as depressing as I am *trigger warning*.’
Julia from @binchcity says she has to be extremely cautious when posting memes about eating habits, because they can spark negative behaviour.
“Eating disorders are easily triggered by seeing other people post about eating disorder habits,” she said.
Residential Advisor, Ayden, says people need to treat mental illness memes with care.
“The thing is, mental illness is an internal thing. You’re affected on an internal level, and on an emotional level,” he said.
“If I had to make a call on meme circulation based on the good versus evil, I would stop them, because if it puts someone’s life at risk, that’s not okay in my books.”
As opinions continue to divide over whether mental illness memes are healthy or not, it cannot be disregarded that, in this day and age, their creation was unavoidable.
Negatively, they create a false understanding for people who have not experienced a mental health condition, they only represent some mental illnesses, and they can trigger negative behaviour.
On the other hand, they have sparked conversation, provided people with online communities and shed light on what is is like to live with a mental health condition.
But, like every other trend on the internet, mental illness memes have the tendency to either die, or evolve. And if the latter lends itself to being more recovery-focused, then I believe they are positive as a means for providing support and much-needed communication.
Though humour may help, support is available. If you, or someone you know isn’t doing so well, contact the following: