Mental illness struggles with portrayals

Social media has played a major role in romanticization

Romantic necklaces on mannequin

Melaney Noguera

Mental illness “aesthetic” merchandise only adds to the problem surrounding mental health.

During a scroll through my Instagram feed, a picture of two necklaces caught my eye. I paused for a second as the dainty gold chains with cursive writing that spelled out the words “depression” and “anxiety” glared back at me. While a closer examination of the caption allowed me to understand that the creator made these necklaces with the intention of spreading awareness on two of the most common mental illnesses, they were insensitive and tasteless at best.

The increase in discussions surrounding mental health is necessary to destigmatize struggles and create an environment where people feel comfortable asking for help. Unfortunately, a recent rise in the romanticization of mental illness has created not only a toxic environment for those who need to heal but a distorted view of these struggles for those who don’t. 

Perspectives on mental health problems have completely changed in the last 200 years. Those who struggled in the early 1800s received little to no support, with severe cases landing in prisons and almshouses. A movement focused on “moral treatment” ensued, in which people deemed mentally ill were provided with a safe, clean, and supportive environment. However, that version of treatment was expensive and ineffective, leading to a decline of the movement.

In the 1900s, treatments relied on isolation rather than support, with the urbanization of many areas leading to the concern that those with mental illness were a danger to society. Similar to the 1800s, facilities and doctors gave attention only to the most severe cases. 

Until the 2000s, many people considered mental health a “taboo” topic. People viewed struggles as weakness, and admitting any form of mental illness was typically met with nothing more than side-eyed glances and pity.

Society has progressed beyond the strenuous and alienating treatments of the past. Now, those suffering from a less severe level of mental illness are able to receive out-patient help, and those with more intense illnesses are able to access higher levels of support.

The surge of normalizing mental illness has clearly had its benefits, but it’s also had unintended consequences: Mental illness has gone from rejected to romanticized. 

The effects of this change vary depending on the person and the illness. It’s necessary to understand that those with mental illness may try to trigger themselves, leading them to go in search of harmful photos, videos, articles, etc. This is especially true concerning those with eating disorders, which can be extremely competitive. 

Social media has played a major role in the romanticization of mental illness, allowing toxic ideas and false information to spread. TikTok has become one of the most prominent platforms for children and teenagers in recent years, and is infamous for allowing creators to glorify mental illness. Videos showing before and after pictures of creators with eating disorders are trending, and are extremely difficult for those in recovery to see.

Many videos are posted to songs with worrisome lyrics, overlaid by clips and images of people crying with dark filters, as well as graphic images of self-harm. Although these videos are a clear cry for help, they can be detrimental to those with self-harming tendencies, as those videos are more than enough to potentially trigger a relapse.

Tumblr has gained a similar reputation as another app that allows users to romanticize mental illness. Thinspo, or inspiration to be thinner using pictures and quotes, is prominent content in the app as well as the consistent glorification of depression and anxiety. Searching up depression typically directs users to a long feed of melancholy and occasionally violent quotes topped off with gloomy cartoons in the background. Doing the same with anxiety will bring a user to journal post after journal post of beautifully written entries surrounding the overwhelmingly crushing weight of anxiety. While it’s healthy that people are expressing themselves, the lighthearted nature of these posts makes it hard to distinguish the true hurt that the illnesses have caused. 

Although the rise in barely filterable social media is arguably the largest cause for the rise in creating an aesthetic around mental illness, recent TV shows are large contributing factors as well. The Infamous Netflix Original 13 Reasons Why follows the story of a teenage girl named Hannah Baker, who left tapes for people who had a major role in her death before committing suicide.

The show, produced by influential figures including Selena Gomez, had seemingly good intentions. The goal was to raise awareness regarding how difficulties in high school life and traumatic events can coincide and lead to tragedy, but the show ultimately painted suicide as dramatized revenge. According to a study done in April of 2017 by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the show’s release was associated with a 28.9 percent increase in suicide rates among U.S. youth ages 10 to 17.

These glorifications not only have negative effects for those struggling with mental health, but also those who don’t have personal experience with those illnesses. 

Inaccurate demonstrations of mental illness create misconceptions that are widely accepted and believed by the general public. This is not only a disservice to them as they are less informed, but also to those struggling who may feel invalidated due to the warped interpretation of what they are going through. 

With increasing opportunities to influence each other through different aspects of media, the responsibility to uphold honesty and consideration is placed on each and every one of our shoulders. Think about who might see what you post: those at their lowest point, those trying to recover, and those who can and will never fully understand the struggles that others face. 

We cannot disable massive social media platforms or remove shows from streaming networks, so the solution lies in the quest for truth. Next time you’re scrolling through TikTok or Instagram or watching a show following the “sad kid” stereotype, I encourage you to think and to really question if the things you’re seeing are accurate representations of their subject. Depression and anxiety are real, dangerous illnesses, not words to dangle on a pretty gold chain.