The turn of the twenty-first century has seen a radical shift in our attitudes towards mental health. Before, it was viewed as a taboo. Those afflicted with it, when brave enough to reveal their struggles, were scorned and forced through traumatizing medical procedures such as lobotomies. They were categorized as weak.
Thankfully, our reservations have been replaced with empathy. Our judgement has been cleared through understanding. Though social media has been cited as contributing to the rise in insecurities, thanks to it the discourse surrounding mental health is at an all-time high. One could argue that it was actually the past that valued perfection; now, it is admirable to be vulnerable. From meditation to medication — all methods are applauded today as ways people heal themselves.
With COVID-19 clouding our nation with uncertainty, more people than ever before are prioritizing their mental health. Societal, racial and political divisions are colliding. Confronting these raging, rampant issues has both drained and energized all of us. And while social media has been instrumental in facilitating conversations about our mental health, it’s also necessary to inspect the consequences of such openness.
Three words: memes, merchandise and marketing. What comes to mind? Certainly not engaging insights or gut-wrenching honesty. More like money-making ploys and subliminal manipulation aimed at seeming “relatable” (though, our fixation with relatability is a whole can of worms in an of itself). While social media has definitely normalized mental health, it has also commercialized it.
Let’s start with the memes. I admit it — I enjoy them as much as the next person does. But when it comes to more sensitive subjects, like mental illness, there are thoughtful, tasteful ways to use them for comedy. When done right, injecting humor can uplift those suffering from it and even empower them. We know it’s all too easy to wallow in self-pity, surrendering to the allure of believing you are all alone. Memes can break this toxic pattern of thought, remind you of the normalcy of your pain.
But, too often, mental health is mishandled and misused for the purpose of “dark humor” : Memes that casually toss out buzzwords such as anxiety and depression, TikToks that showcase toxic behavior. This kind of content is not only offensive, it is dangerous. It advertises mental health to such an extent that it forgets about the importance of treating it. It perpetuates self-diagnoses and armchair psychology, defeating the purpose of our discussions. We should be encouraging professional guidance, not trying to wrangle our own instability into submission.
Next, merchandise and marketing come hand-in-hand. While I acknowledge the benefits of shedding light on mental illness through memes, there are no redeeming qualities in profiting off of this. Here is where I draw the line. Mental illness cannot be stylized or portrayed in aesthetic fonts. There is nothing trendy, nothing cutesy, about it. Mental illness is a devastating, insidious thing, wreaking havoc everywhere.
The influencer above, with the full definition of anxiety pasted on the back of her sweatshirt, makes me wonder what is next — a full definition of suicide? We are skating perilously close to the edge, where unacceptable cash-grabs transform into downright cruel behavior. Humor can be curated and given freely, so to turn mental health into a brand for financial gain and call it activism is ludicrous. At the end of the day, none of us want to purchase your products for you to only donate a small percentage to charity. We want you to talk openly about your own experiences. To use your platform and uplift others, not empty their pockets.
This isn’t the only tone-deaf behavior influencers have displayed towards mental health. Though it is a relatively new realization to us, it is a phenomenon that influencers have exploited time and time again: when trying to avoid taking accountability for their actions, mental illness becomes the perfect scapegoat. And thus, they emerge from their scandals unscathed, smug from the outpouring of support they receive.
But there must be a limit to our compassion, especially as the pattern becomes clear to us of this tried and true method — the blaming of one’s past trauma in order to distract us from their current actions. Mental health is an explanation, not an excuse. It can provide context for a circumstance, but it cannot undo what influencers have done. It cannot alleviate the hurt they’ve inflicted, nor ignore the objective fact that what they’ve done is wrong.
Though this may sound stern, we need to crack down on our perception of mental health on social media. We need to stop commodifying mental health, and we need to rein in our empathy for those who have escaped the consequences of their mistakes for too long.
Photo Courtesy of Kon Karampelas