Since its genesis, the internet has been reliably filled to the brim with two things—depressed people and memes. But it wasn’t until recently that the two intersected and “depression memes” were born. The memes come in many different shapes and sizes, and are funny because of their brutally relatable content, but are they facilitating a dialogue about mental illness or perpetuating unhealthy thought and behavior patterns?
A meme is currently defined as “a humorous image, video, or piece of text, etc., copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by internet users.” Anyone who’s grown up with internet access has seen their fair share of memes. In their early years, the most popular memes were simple images accompanied by text. Each image had a specific theme attached to it. For instance, “Bad Luck Brian” was a popular meme made from an unfortunate yearbook photo, and users cited the meme in any outrageously awkward or unfortunate situation, some of them closer to reality in construction, others exaggerated for comedic effect.
In recent years, memes have diversified in their presentation. At their core, they are still repeated images, audio or video, each with a usually visible theme, but their format has become much looser. Some exist as text-only phrases compatible with different images and inserted into multiple contexts in order to elicit different reactions. Others are videos or songs. Memes have even been made out of events as topical as the election cycle and as bizarre as the unexpected death of a gorilla at the Cincinnati zoo.
How and why certain memes become popular is not always clear. In theory, meme trends should be reflective of a widespread cultural feeling. American memes from 2016 tended to reflect a general dissatisfaction and dissociation from current politics and culture. Self-titled “nihilist memes” were extremely popular then, a clear example of a growing detached cynicism in response to the disheartening and disturbing events of last year.
If depressing memes are viewed through the same lens then, i.e. as a reflection of an emotional zeitgeist, what should be concluded about mental illness in Americans as of late? Is depression itself on the rise, or are internet users just talking about mental health more? The memes are more likely a result of people talking about their mental illness more, and those who are creating, posting, or sharing them have always been able to relate to the sentiments conveyed, but didn’t previously feel comfortable enough, to vocalize them.
If considered a means for people on the internet to discuss mental illness as a community, depressive memes are a positive trend. Though by no means a solution for mental illness, humor is an effective coping strategy for pain. Someone might see a meme accurately describing a feeling they struggle with and realize they aren’t alone. The meme itself could also be very funny because of the way its accompanying image, video, or audio works alongside the relatable content. Sharing depressing memes with others can be viewed as a way for a group of people to get together and laugh off, at least temporarily, the feelings and behavior causing them suffering.
On the other hand, depressive memes may also be tipping the scales and creating an unhealthy digital environment of toxic thinking. Significantly, the original definition of a meme is “an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, especially imitation.” Memes and their themes have a wider launch and blast radius range than the most powerful nuclear missiles, reaching everyone on the planet with an internet connection and some form of social media, which means they can easily spread and perpetuate harmful messages surrounding mental health issues. If a meme can function as a contagious system of behavior, could the culture of depressing memes be creating a community of people who are becoming entrenched in their own problematic behavior because they see it reinforced in online humor?
I recognize I run the risk of sounding like someone cranking out a paranoid speculative sci-fi script about why the internet is bad, but I promise I’m not out to slander technology. I’ve enjoyed many a depressive meme, and want them to be a positive trend, but turning a blind eye to possibly negative effects a digital phenomenon might be having seems unwise. Though there are many hilariously depressing memes, I’ve encountered a few that felt relatable to an extent that ceased to be funny and became, instead, distressing. Even though exposure is important for growth, being reminded of ways your own brain sometimes tries to sabotage you can be unhelpful, especially if you happen to be having a good day.
Depressing memes also exist along a spectrum. An unfortunate few border on cruel. Some joke about issues like suicide, and while those who struggle with suicidal thoughts certainly have a right to joke about them, I wonder whether the wide reach of such material is really a good thing, especially considering the contagious nature of memes and the amount of impressionable young people who use the internet.
Still, the vast majority of depressive memes aren’t so harsh, and do simply give people a way to articulate and laugh about their more challenging emotions online. The rise of depressing memes has also been accompanied by the “wholesome meme,” reflecting a tender side of the internet previously unseen. If nothing else, the simultaneous popularity of both memes is indicative of a growing willingness to be more vulnerable and open about emotion.
When choosing between repression and expression, the latter is easily the better option, but enjoyment of memes shouldn’t come at a cost to your mental health, nor are they a substitute for proper treatment and care. I believe depressive memes are a well-intentioned phenomenon, reflective of a growing allowance of emotional expression, but at the end of the day, everyone should remember they’re only memes, and by their very nature highly unregulated. Feel free to laugh, just don’t take them too seriously, and remember to take a break if you need to.