If you’ve been on the internet for long enough, you must have seen at least one joke or meme about mental health. BuzzFeed alone seems to publish a list of such jokes at least every other month, compiled from the newest Twitter or Tumblr posts on the topic. You might have liked or even made one.
While memes have done a fair amount to bring mental health into public awareness, and to encourage people to speak about the topic in a way that seems to have largely de-stigmatized it, the phenomenon isn’t fully benign. Mental health humor romanticizes mental illness in a way that turns it into a product for consumption, thus converting the lived experience of suffering into a commodity. Moreover, mental health humor encourages individuals to perform their mental illness in a way that follows a narrative pre-written by the collective voice of the internet. This is not necessarily a bad thing: it can allow individuals to reclaim a type of agency that has culturally long been denied them. But, ultimately, the prevalence of mental health humor reveals that we, as a society, still lack a fully-formed, cogent vocabulary for truly carrying out productive discussion on the topic.
The Conversation on Mental Illness: How Does the Internet Conduct It?
Mental health memes are frank. They name problems for what they are: low self-esteem, toxic coping mechanisms, vicious cycles that prevent recovery. They are also serenely cynical about these problems, packing them into a few snappy lines and putting them out there for likes and hearts.
For those looking for a repository of cynical memes about mental health, the popular subreddit r/2meirl4meirl is a good place to start. The slang term 2meirl4meirl, which is also a popular hashtag on Instagram and Twitter, developed out of the me_irl meme format, which, to quote knowyourmeme.com, is “a phrase used to indicate that a user believes that a linked image or video indicates their present mental or physical state.” A subset of the me_irl type memes began to distinguish itself soon enough—those dealing with mental illness, in particular depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. This prompted the creation of the r/2meirl4meirl subreddit in early 2016. Today, the subreddit has approximately 399,000 subscribers and receives on average 14,000 new subscribers a day.
Although the subreddit consists mainly of jokes, their subject matter is grim: subscribers post about feeling lonely, having no self-confidence or discerning no reasons for living. They often express explicitly suicidal thoughts. One of the top posts of all time, for instance, is a simple image consisting only of the text: Upvote this to die instantly. It is the fourth most upvoted post on the subreddit, with a score of (as of this writing) of 50,300. That means that 50,300 Reddit users either would like to die instantly, or think that wanting to die instantly is a hilarious punch line, or a mixture of both.
Other top posts follow much the same vein. There’s a tweet reading: “Life is like soccer because my mom signed me up for it and expects me to try my best even though I hate fucking soccer.” Another makes fun of the intersection between suicidality and Reddit’s other favorite asocial behavior: “I always keep a loaded gun on my nightstand in the event of an intruder, so I can shoot myself to avoid meeting new people.” Yet another post describes apathy, a real, life-impairing effect of depression: “When u stopped caring as a defense mechanism but now you can’t care or be passionate about anything so you just wake up every day and live life on autopilot.” This is followed by an image of a woman with a blank stare. Yet the informal and tongue-in-cheek use of the middle-school spelling u for you, as well as the set up of the text within a reaction meme, reveal that the intent is meant to be humorous, as much as it is to draw attention to a serious real-life truth.
That a more open conversation around mental illness is long overdue is obvious. According to The World Health Organization, around 300 million people of all ages worldwide suffer from depression. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that anxiety is the most common mental health illness in the US, affecting 18.1% of the population every year. According to one report, between 2013 and 2016, the rise in depression was highest among 12–17 year olds (an increase of 63%) and second highest among 18–34 year olds (an increase of 47%). Millennials and generation Z-ers are also the groups most likely to create, consume and share memes, which would explain the popularity of mental health issues as a topic of internet-generated humor.
The formalized conversation about mental illness terminology has had a long (in internet time) history both on the left and on the right. Celebrity suicides usually cause the media on the left to overflow with think pieces about how we need to talk more openly about mental health for the benefit of the general public. This kind of discourse seems to have become mainstream shortly after Robin Williams’ suicide back in 2014, but, as recently as 2018, Anthony Bourdain’s and Kate Spade’s deaths sparked the same kind of reaction. In a more sinister vein, the right also tends to request conversations on mental illness, especially in relation to mass shootings. The starting point for this may have been the 2014 mass shooting committed by Elliot Rodger, whose misogynistic and racist manifesto is now considered a precursor of certain alt-right ideologies that are still alive and thriving in 2018. (Critics have claimed that mental health is often used by the right as a distraction from the connection between gun violence and other issues, such as white supremacy and toxic masculinity.)
To read all these pieces of writing, one would think their authors had never seen a mental health meme in their life, let alone become acquainted with their sheer volume and popularity. Mental health memes have been credited with starting a conversation about the topic: it has been claimed that they provide the humor and the distance required to enable people to open up about difficult experiences, or that they create communities where problems might be shared within a network of peers, or that they open up dialogue and reduce feelings of loneliness.
Or, one might suggest, the kind of conversation that’s carried out through memes isn’t really the one we need.
Romanticizing Mental Illness: It’s Not (Just) What You Think It Is
Mental health as discussed casually, at grassroots level on the internet, has often been associated with romanticization and its dangers. To talk about romanticizing mental illness one needs to talk about Tumblr first and foremost—at least its pre-2014 version. At that point, what Tumblr offered consisted less of humorous treatment of mental illness and more of traditionally aestheticized images of it.
For example, under the tag thinspo (short for thinspiration, a portmanteau of thin and inspiration) one could—and still can—find glamorous pictures of thin white women: bones protruding, long hair hanging luxuriantly down their backs, chunky shoes and close-fitting clothes emphasizing their smallness. Such pictures were often shot in black and white and accompanied by captions about how desirable smallness of frame was, or how indicative it was of strength, self-control and mastery over one’s own body. Their home was mostly the pro-ana and pro-mia tags (pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia, respectively). Depression-related pictures showed beautiful people, artfully shot in black and white, smoking cigarettes, or mournfully resting their heads against windows, or driving vintage cars, or gazing into the distance. They were usually accompanied by one-liners on the nature of depression, love, life and suffering: sometimes witty, sometimes sad, sometimes both, always aiming at the illusion of philosophical depth.
In response to feedback from users, in 2014 Tumblr added a new feature: whenever a mental-illness related keyword is typed into the search bar, a message with a list of helplines is displayed before the search results. (Maybe non-coincidentally, 2014 is the year when Robin Williams died, as well as the year when Elliot Rodger committed his mass shooting.)
But romanticization need not only consist of arms sticking out of car windows in black-and-white pictures, or half-smoked cigarettes reminiscent of old French films. The other face of it are the twenty-somethings who eat family-sized bags of Doritos while binge watching Netflix and crying alone in their messy flats, as they tweet about how they’re eating family-sized bags of Doritos, while binge watching Netflix and crying alone, all within the safe template of the meme du jour.
The two kinds of tableaux might seem opposites. Surely the raw sincerity of mental illness memes, their unattractiveness, is the very opposite of romanticization? Is it not precisely a reaction to the unrealistic, Tumblr-influenced depictions of what it is like to be mentally ill, which make it look so beautiful as to be desirable?
Well, yes and no. Romanticizing is, strictly speaking, making something look—generally in a way that’s false to the thing’s actual nature—not necessarily good, but such that any potential audience will want to be it or identify with it. When most of us think of romanticization, we think of making something seem better than it really is, because naturally we all want to identify with people who look richer, more glamorous and more conventionally attractive than us. But, over the last few years, an alternative has appeared. For instance, around 2014, Jennifer Lawrence took the internet by storm by tripping on the red carpet, chugging champagne, declaring her love of pizza and fries and generally subverting everything a celebrity is supposed to be. Whether she was one of the causes of this new phenomenon or just a symptom of it, she summarizes everything about this new aesthetic worldview. The awkward and the ordinary, the un-photoshopped, the commonplace and the real have become aesthetic categories in their own right, fit to stand side by side with the more traditional ones, and defined entirely in opposition to them. These days, for every perfectly staged Instagram picture with a full face of professional makeup, there’s someone watching cat videos in their stained underpants and making sure you know about it.
Performing and Consuming Mental Illness
There’s a rawness and authenticity to mental health memes in the honesty with which they present the unedited sides of human nature that makes them buy exactly into this aesthetics of the ordinary. To like or reblog a mental health meme is to admit that you’re all too human. Who among us hasn’t felt unmotivated, hopeless or despairing? Who hasn’t used self-destructive behaviors to cope with pain at least once in their lives, or dwelled on harmful thoughts more than they should have? Such feelings, pathological or not, are part of the human experience. This also explains the appeal of mental illness memes among the non-mentally ill.
Memes are built with an audience in mind; they are designed to be exchanged for social media currency: likes, reblogs, upvotes or retweets. This has important effects on how mental illness is conceived from within. Once turned into a meme, mental illness is a product of consumption for the sake of entertainment; it is, in other words, commodified. Commodification means, ultimately, that mental health problems are no longer experienced as something that merely happens to the sufferer: the poster has to consider his or her potential audience, what kind of people they are, what their preferences are and what should be avoided; he or she has to package the feeling in a manner as accessible and attractive to said audience as possible. Granted, all these actions are often done automatically and instinctively—but they function as multiple layers inserted between feelings and the feeler, or as templates according to which mental illness is experienced. In other words, in the world of internet mental health humor, conditions are turned into performances.
And to perform means, among other things, to watch yourself be watched, to imagine yourself as the object of fascinated attention from others—ultimately, to draw a sense of your own worth from the value of how you appear in the collective eye. When you make a meme about mental illness as experienced by you, you are, among other things, selling yourself to your intended audience as embodying the aesthetic which these memes represent, with the hope that the audience also finds that aesthetic desirable. Hence, it is a way of romanticizing yourself.
Romanticization, then, can take at least two forms: either the old school Tumblr model, which invites admiration, or the newer 2meirl4meirl model, which invites relatability. (Or pity followed by the realization that you, too, are to be pitied, but at least this pitiful state is a spectacle worth being watched.)
Not Just on the Internet
The dichotomy between the two kinds of romanticization is by no means restricted only to user-produced content. It is consistent across media. Mental health humor is to old-fashioned Tumblr artiness what BoJack Horseman is to 13 Reasons Why. The latter makes mental illness into a premise, the former into a punch line.
In 13 Reasons Why, the main character, Hannah Baker, commits suicide and leaves behind thirteen tapes, in which she explains all the factors that contributed to her decision. This is the ultimate kind of Tumblr-paradigmatic romanticization. Hannah is attractive, interesting and witty (and awkward in a way that makes her relatable but still adorable, the kind of awkward we all wish we could be). She disappears, but ultimately she triumphs, because the story that couldn’t get heard while she was alive is heard when and because she’s dead. She also embodies the ultimate need to feel oneself being watched, taken to its logical extreme: Hannah tells her own story solely for others’ benefit, and kills herself so that the story can make more of an impact. She won’t be around to witness any of the impact, or derive any satisfaction (or any other feelings) from it. The show begins with her dead—before her death, she can only watch herself through the eyes of her eventual audience, as the gazed upon, never the one doing the looking, because the very act of speech which she has chosen presupposes self-annihilation.
The old school Tumblr model of romanticization is more traditionally feminine, in the socially constructed sense: it aims at being aesthetically pleasing, and, in the process, effaces itself. No wonder thin-to-the-point-of-disappearing women and girls are its most stereotypical elements. When the newer 2meirl4meirl model developed, it did so partly as a reaction to this. It was loud, unashamed of itself, strolling onto the internet stage in its underwear, with hairy legs and pizza-stained clothes. It claimed stereotypically masculine traits for itself and aimed at degendering mental illness. Yet, like the old tradition it was trying to subvert, it retained its self-fetishization: the need to watch oneself being watched.
BoJack Horseman, which, while paying plenty of lip service to feminism, is a quintessentially masculine show, sounds, at times, as if has been compiled from a collage of 2meirl4meirl memes. The main character is a washed-out TV star, who, never able to replicate the success he enjoyed in the 90s, copes with the various disappointments in his life (including childhood trauma) through self-destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse. The show has its moments of raw, non-humorous self-awareness, which aim to create at least the impression that change is possible. But, much of the time, serious mental health issues are used as jokes. The titular character casually says things like, “I spend a lot of time with the real me and believe me, nobody’s gonna love that guy”; “I need to go take a shower so I can tell whether I’m crying or not” and “I’m responsible for my own happiness? I can’t even be responsible for my own breakfast!” We’re invited to laugh at these throwaway lines because they are tragic.
A piece of dialogue put in the mouth of loveable hot mess Sarah Lynn (a former child star now struggling with drug addiction and depression) is delivered in the flat, lifeless and casual tone and deploys the sharp insight-employing psychological narrative so reminiscent of mental illness memes: “I’m at a place right now where I never need to grow as a person or rise to an occasion because I can constantly just surround myself with sycophants and enablers until I die tragically young … It’s pretty much too late for me.” The joke is that this is a relatively crudely drawn cartoon (note the parallel with the meme format, a visual genre that has never laid claim to any artistic qualities). It’s also funny because of the overall context: Sarah Lynn’s other drug-fueled exploits are generally treated as hilarious in the rest of the show, which signals that the piece of self-knowledge quoted above is to be treated less as genuine wisdom and more as yet another punch line. Whatever seriousness BoJack Horseman may attempt in its treatment of mental health, its casual attitude in the supposedly funny moments reveal it, too, for what it is: commodification of mental illness for the purpose of extracting laughter. Again, the sufferer is alienated from the suffering, the two of them mediated by the gaze of the laughers.
Performativity and Its Appeal
If performativity is written into the very essence of TV shows, given the medium, it is less natural to unscripted real-life experience. So what explains the performativity in our current so-called conversation about mental illness? Of course, to the extent that most conversations these days are carried out over the internet, where the concept of an audience is already built into every expression of thought, everything is inherently performative to some degree. But might there be any mental illness specific explanations?
One answer may lie in the possibility of agency that the culture of memes affords. To suffer mental illness is, according to our most widespread cultural views, to be a person to whom unwelcome things happen: even the terminology (to suffer from depression, anxiety, OCD, etc.) springs from this assumption of passivity. But a performance needs an actor: someone who does the acting. Performing mental illness in front of a public may be the most accessible way for people to take control of their condition—to become agents and not mere sufferers, to write the narrative of how they experience their illness.
This narrative may be patched up from bits and pieces picked up from things liked or retweeted online, but this can itself be a positive thing. Because these bits and pieces provide a common language. After centuries of non-discussion of mental illness, or discussion of it in the completely wrong terms, it is only natural that laypeople with no formal training in psychology or psychiatry don’t yet have a fully formed vocabulary for what they’re experiencing. Moreover, mental illness can be an extremely isolating experience. Language is, in its very essence, public, allowing for mental content to be shared. The easy-to-replicate template of memes emphasizes the commonality of experience, but memes are also productive: they allow general patterns to be filled with new content every time a new rendition appears, and to form the basis for further templates and more experiences encompassed by them.
Performance is necessarily done in front of a public, for exposure, and, in this particular case, exposure is exactly what is needed. Mental illness has long been dismissed as not really an illness, only in your head or something you can snap out of. Women, in particular, have had a long history of having their ailments, including their mental issues, minimized and dismissed as just another feature of their gender. To say to others, even anonymous strangers on the internet, that you are unwell, and to have them respond to your experience, even if it’s with a mere like, is the kind of validation that sufferers of mental illness have been denied for too long. The fact that mental health memes are so commonplace might make it appear as though we as a society are now fully open about mental health—but centuries of stigma are hard to shake off.
But Is This Really What We Need?
Clearly, there are plenty of reasons why people may resort to memes and humor to discuss their mental illness. But, while memes can be great conversation starters, the question is whether the conversation in question will be productive. Just as mental health memes have their defenders, they also have their detractors. It has been argued that, while they may indeed start conversations, they also provide exposure to harmful behaviors and thoughts; that, while they break taboos, they also over-normalize mental health issues; that, as much as shared humor can be helpful in what is often an isolating experience, it is often only a Band-Aid solution; that memes trivialize and may even misrepresent the seriousness of the issues they spotlight.
But there’s one little discussed reason why memes may not be such a great vehicle for serious dialogue about mental illness: their very format encourages complacency because their humor derives from the mismatch between form and subject matter. The meme format is synonymous with the lighthearted, funny and non-serious. Yet the subject matter of mental health humor is always serious and often bleak. The tone of mental health memes is often calm and detached, which creates a further contrast with their content. This is why, for instance, a stock picture of a woman with a face mask and cucumber slices on, followed by a lengthy and honest description of a BPD episode is funny: because of the juxtaposition between the expectations set by the template of the reaction meme—plus the cheesiness of the picture—and the tragically insightful text. If, in the world of mental health memes, there were a possibility of improvement or escape from mental illness, the jokes would cease to be funny. If mental illness were easily escapable, the contradiction between the detached self-aware attitude of the speaker and the life-impairing condition they speak of so lightheartedly would not work. It wouldn’t be funny, because it would contain no element of the unexpected. In other words, mental illness memes require a feeling of hopelessness on the part of their consumers in order to work
This may explain the short-lived popularity of the genre of so-called wholesome memes, around 2016. These were image macros that subverted expectations: they used the format of typical mental health memes, but their punch lines inevitably had to do with cultivating healthy behaviors and relationships. In order to inject some positivity into mental health memes, a new sub-genre had to be created, precisely because the existing ones dealing with mental illness could not be adapted to include this. Or, more precisely, the only way to adapt them was to subvert—that is, to negate them. These days, one hardly sees wholesome memes anymore, outside of a few dedicated spaces, whereas the more cynical ones are at the height of their popularity.
Serious conversation can sometimes be conducted by means of humor, but the sheer volume of polylogues on mental illness via memes points to a certain deficiency in non-humorous mental health related vocabulary. This insufficiency could be a sign of a general discomfort in our culture with tackling serious subjects head on, without the distance offered by romanticization (of either kind). Alternatively, it could point to a more particular problem with the way in which mental health is discussed. (These two suggestions are not mutually exclusive.)
A Tentative Conclusion
Maybe all the think pieces and awareness-raising campaigns have made a difference in persuading us that we need to talk more about mental health, but have had little effect in terms of teaching us how to do so. So we talk and talk—and even act sometimes, spurred on both by internal drives and by the collective discourse which keeps hammering home the message that more conversation and more action are needed. But we can only do this with the tools we already have. Ultimately, as a culture, we over-rely on humor and pre-made, easily digestible formats to deliver important truths. Mental health memes contain important insights. But surely much more could be achieved if these insights were packaged in different formats—formats which don’t, by their nature, rely on the very inescapability of the status quo to work. Whether mental health memes are more good than bad or more bad than good, the creation and popularization of a space for talking about mental health in its own terms, without being parasitic on pre-established forms, is long overdue.