Sometime in August this year, a newly-established local brand released the first of many posts advertising the “first season” of their clothing line. A quick glance is enough to let people know that they are looking to make a bold statement. Designs for each T-shirt featured a mental health diagnosis written in large letters, a relatively disturbing (if not intriguing) depiction of one’s experience with said diagnosis, and a short caption. While this did not turn out well for the brand – as they eventually took the posts down and apologized due to the amount of backlash they received – one thing was for certain: they drew people’s attention to the prevailing discourse around the portrayal of mental illnesses.
In the past, traditional mainstream media in the form of movies, television, and newspapers perpetuated a very different image of mental illness – either bearing characteristics such as being charming and psychotic (think of the “mad murderer” trope) or childlike and foolish (Jadayel et al., 2017). Since then, there have been vast changes to the representation of mental illness as multiple mental health-led organizations – old and new – constantly sought to advocate for the de-stigmatization of mental disorders (Dunn, 2017). The advent of social media only seemed to add onto this rapid shift towards a more normalized and “relatable” perception of mental health. Yet, ironically, it was these very endeavours to decrease stigma that had exacerbated the romanticization of mental illnesses.
The romanticization, which is defined as the idealized presentation of something as being more alluring than it really is (Shrestha, 2018), of mental disorders could be seen in the way they have been painted across different social media platforms.
On Instagram, “emotional distress” accounts and brands had quickly gained popularity. Endless examples of people casually attributing their emotions and preferences to clinical disorders could be found throughout the application. “It’s triggering my OCD!” one comment states in response to a messy layout, for example.
On Tumblr and Pinterest, a brief search of the topic gave way to concerning observations. Hashtags promoting the beautification of mental disorders, such as “traumacore” and “ventcore”, received thousands upon thousands of followers. Photos, sketches, and edits depicting self-harm, suicide, as well as substance use and abuse filled the timeline. Other posts contained vague writings referencing depression and anxiety overlaying equally ambiguous backdrops.
On TikTok, creators seemed to follow a trend of publishing unscripted reality shows of themselves and even took to adopting the role of “armchair experts”. They recorded and shared videos about everything from their “depression rooms” and trips to the psychiatric ward to discoveries of generalized traits and symptoms they found to be correlated with an array of mental health diagnoses.
Similarly, examples of mental disorders being glamorized could be found in the news. Celebrities and influencers would “come out” to the public about their experiences of mental disorders, their stories often packaged into inspiring narratives that do not always reflect the daily challenges faced by others with a similar diagnosis. Reports about suicide still tend to be sensationalized, particularly those involving unusual circumstances or methods (McTernan et al., 2018). The representations of mental disorders in movies had not fared much better. Today, it is depicted as either “quirks” designed to “enrich” the character’s personality or is demonstrated as a fallen hero’s rite of passage. Such is the case in the characterization of suicide within the hit Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.
Thus, it seems that in everyone’s rush to diminish the barrier on speaking about one’s mental health, they missed the vitality of making the fundamental distinction between “normal” feelings and experiences and clinically diagnosed mental disorders.
There are widespread consequences of glorifying – and consequently misrepresenting – mental disorders. For one, new stigmas and prejudices may emerge, whilst some of what had already existed may be magnified (Jadayel et al., 2017). This is seen in how mental disorders are allowed to act as a justification for harmful behaviours and how there are preferences for some conditions (e.g. mood disorders) over others (e.g. psychotic disorders).
Aside from that, the rise of self-diagnoses and fake diagnoses could partially be attributed to people's aspirations to relate to the idealized representations of mental disorders (Shrestha, 2018). This is particularly true of younger and more vulnerable populations, in which gaining a sense of belonging towards communities are deemed as critical. Attaining acceptance into a group is one of the few benefits attached to diagnostic labels. However, without adequate awareness and understanding about how one makes meaning of it, there is a greater likelihood for one to instead experience the harms of labels.
Another risk is emotional and social contagion, whereby exposure to certain emotions and behaviours influences others to experience said emotions or practice said behaviours (Dunn, 2017). This brings forth dangerous implications. There are possibilities that symptoms of mental disorders could be aggravated amongst those who are already diagnosed and adopted by people who would otherwise not have experienced these symptoms. Social contagion has also been linked to the likes of “copycat suicides”, which refers to the increasing numbers of suicide cases following deaths by suicide (particularly those that are highly publicized).
Finally, the influx of disclosures on experiences of mental disorders can lead to challenges as people would not be able to distinguish between what is deemed as “genuine” and what is “attention-seeking”. As a result, they may provide unhelpful or even damaging responses to those who have mental health concerns. For instance, people may be discouraged from seeking support as their struggles could be dismissed as “normal", or that this is "just how you are”.
Mental disorders are becoming exceedingly more common than ever. They are real and can have profound, far-reaching effects on one’s life. So, there is a necessity to promote societal discourses that are based on more accurate representations (grounded in research and lived experiences) of mental health issues. Several social media platforms seem to have come to this realization as they have now enacted policies that emphasize seeking support, and there is hope that the rest of the media and the public will follow this progression.
Hence, the answer to the romanticization of mental illness may not lie in the total erasure of the current public images of mental disorders but in taking careful consideration.
“We should all approach these discussions with a more nuanced, rational perspective instead of viewing mental illnesses as passing trends.”
- Yu (2018)
There is a fine line between normalizing and trivializing mental disorders, and the direction in which the scales are tipped is determined by the way we engage with the information presented to us. This might mean practicing mindfulness, so that we would be able to recognize when it’s doing more harm than good.
Ultimately, it is crucial for us to understand and acknowledge that humans are complex beings. No two people assess and respond to an event in the same way, as each person possesses a unique set of lived experiences, background, and circumstances. We can’t generalize mental health presentations, and we need to turn to individuals who have the skills and expertise in navigating these complexities if we find ourselves identifying with certain symptoms and/or have concerns regarding our mental health.
Dunn, E. R. (2017). Blue is the new black: How popular culture is romanticizing mental illness [Unpublished thesis]. Texas State University.
Jadayel, R., Medlej, K., Jadayel, J. J. (2017). Mental disorders: A glamorous attraction on social media? Journal of Teaching and Education, 7(1), 465-476.
McTernan, N., Spillane, A., Cully, G., Cusack, E., O’Reilly, T., & Arensman, E. (2018). Media reporting of suicide and adherence to media guidelines. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 64(6), 536–544. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020764018784624
Shrestha, A. (2018). Echo: The Romanticization of Mental Illness on Tumblr. The Undergraduate Research Journal of Psychology at UCLA, 5, 69-80.
Yu, J. (2018, October 16). Glorification of mental illness worsens cultural stigma. Collegiate Times. Retrieved from http://www.collegiatetimes.com/opinion/glorification-of-mental-illness-worsens-cultural-stigma/article_ee290ca8-d154-11e8-8f43-6f787c05d16a.html