Trigger warning: mentions of s*ic*de.
‘She is a beautiful piece of broken pottery, put back together by her own hands. And a critical world judges her cracks while missing the beauty of how she made herself whole again.’ This ‘prettified’ quote is just one of many examples of the romanticising of mental illness.
You’ve probably seen the social media posts: ‘Suicidal people are just angels trying to get home’, or ‘I’m jealous of people with enough self-control to be anorexic’, backgrounded by a type of artsy, black-and-white photo that is native to many Tumblr posts.
This trend has traversed social media into the offline world as well. One of the more infamous examples is a t-shirt with Kurt Cobain’s suicide note, which was sold by multiple large online retailers. Social media influencers are also guilty of contributing to this problem, profiting from merch that proudly displays phrases such as, ‘Anxiety Queen’, or ‘My anxieties have anxieties’.
Traditional media plays a particularly guilty role in this problem by portraying mental illness in exaggerated and misrepresentative ways. One of the more recent cases of this was a widely popular show ’13 Reasons Why’, creating waves in the media for promoting a sensationalised depiction of suicide.
There may have good intentions behind many of these creations. Perhaps they were an attempt to resist shame and stigma and show solidarity to others with mental illness. However, in reality they end up doing more harm than good.
Why is romanticising mental illness so bad?
Mental illness is not beautiful, edgy, or quirky. It is not an aesthetic to be appropriated by people who are neurotypical. It is an illness, and should be portrayed as such.
This glamorisation contributes to the ‘watering down’ of mental illness. It undermines the gravity of this potentially life-threatening condition.
When the media promotes mental illness as a fashion trend, a quirky personality trait, or ‘beautifully tragic’, people who are genuinely suffering feel that they aren’t being taken seriously. I, personally, don’t feel ‘seen’ by a gold necklace adorned with the word ‘depression’ in frilly writing. This, and anything similar, comes across as people wearing mental illness as a trend or fashion statement, or in some instances, using mental illness as a joke. What’s more, if most of what is being broadcast online is these ‘#relatable’, edgy, or romanticised depictions, people begin to think that everyone is simply jumping on the mental illness bandwagon to align themselves with a ‘cool’ trend.
This has also led to many (mainly young) people seeing this glamorisation on social media and aspiring to have a mental illness. Those who are genuinely ill are, again, the ones getting the short end of the stick here, struggling to be believed and taken seriously in what was already an uphill battle. Similarly, the media often portray mental illness inaccurately, adding to the widespread, rampant misinformation about mental illness out there, and in turn perpetuating stigma.
The other issue with this kind of romanticisation is that it highlights how problematic mental illness stigma still is. Shallow social media posts and T.V. shows only see certain mental illnesses as trendy. Many mental illnesses are already considered to be ‘less palatable’ in general, for example, schizophrenia and personality disorders. Anxiety and depression in particular are subject to a lesser (albeit still significant) stigma, in comparison. The media hinging on this simply perpetuates this idea.
Under no circumstances should we feel ashamed of our mental illness. But, it’s also not something that we should wear as a badge of honour. We need to find a happy medium, where mental disorders are destigmatised but not glamorised.
It’s not as simple as it may seem.
I have to be honest. In my research for this blog post, I realised that I had a limited idea of what constitutes romanticising mental illness. A large portion of the mental health content that I consume online could arguably be contributing to this problem. I often like to make jokes about my own mental illness. I often repost them on social media, as they give me a sense of solidarity with others with whom I can relate, and I share them in the hopes of doing the same for others.
This is where some questions are raised. I recognise that I should stop sharing these posts to prevent relaying the wrong message to others, but does this mean I can’t get any personal enjoyment out of relating to them? In the same vein, should musicians stop writing songs about their mental illness? Is poetry about mental illness perpetuating the concept of beautified mental illness?
There is a fine line between making beautiful art and media about mental illness and romanticising it. The fact that everyone’s perception of what constitutes romanticism will differ makes this issue even more complex.
In order to ensure that we don’t unintentionally cross this line, we must remain committed to being real and truthful.
We are all responsible.
A major aspect of the solution to this problem lies in taking responsibility. Mainstream media in particular is pivotal, due to its wide reach and significant influence over many impressionable people. Ideally, any form of media that portrays someone with mental illness, should be helmed by someone who has experience it first-hand. At the very least, someone who has experienced having a mental illness should be consulted. Consulting with mental health organisations and professionals should also be a requirement in order to ensure that portrayals of mental illness don’t lead to dangerous consequences.
We also need to take personal responsibility. This begins with educating ourselves. Like me, you can learn about what romanticisation is and why it’s harmful. In doing this, you will come to recognise these behaviours in yourself and others.
If you are affected by the issues raised here, please refer to the resources page.
If you are struggling with your mental health, please seek advice from your doctor or mental health professional.