Social Media’s Depression Jokes Normalize Mental Illness

Depression jokes have become the new social media trend, leaving many users falsely convinced that they have a mental illness.
February 17, 2018
7 mins read

Millennials are known for many things: avocado toast, filtered selfies and unresolved angst. This generation, as well as their successor Generation X, has taken the internet by storm, often posting about their deeply personal struggles with mental illness in the hopes of being heard.

The internet is a great facilitator for spreading information, bringing awareness to problems and rallying around individuals in show of support. It has allowed people to share deeply personal issues to the masses instantaneously and easily with the click of a button. However, despite the constructive conversations that have risen around mental illness, a dangerous side has emerged.

Angst as an aesthetic

Like anything, the internet has its drawbacks. The Twitter account “so sad today,” penned as an anonymous feed but run by author Melissa Broder, has amassed over 597,000 followers. Her cynicism-fueled tweets such as “brb figuring out how to live,” “is this death, a breakdown, or am i just tired: a memoir” and “it’s important to be a mess” chronicle a witty side of the glass half-empty mentality.

Accounts such as Broder’s have become popular because they echo the sentiments of individuals who personally identify with the struggles expressed by depression jokes. In a twisted sense, it is a chaotic art form of expertly curated 140 – 280-character anecdotes woven into the threads of the interweb in a way that is shareable and humorous. Because of the widespread popularity of its produced content, social media has thrusted issues such as depression and anxiety into the public sphere in a negative way that dangerously romanticizes and normalizes mental illness.

These seemingly innocuous accounts that have resonated with the public pose a large threat. Creating depression jokes as a coping mechanism has begun to normalize mental illness by taking depression out of context and spinning it in a way that romanticizes the issue at hand and justifies self-harm.

The problem with depression-themed accounts is that they make no effort to combat mental illness or help users address their issues constructively. There are no suggestions on how to handle the pain, no professional help hotlines attached for those who seek help or encouraging promises of a better day.

Instead, the social media sites run on a steady stream of negativity, creating small circles of people who feel the same way and only serve as echo chambers for perpetuating distorted concepts. As a result, social media accounts that thrive on depression jokes only serve to fuel the fire and desensitize their followers.

Degrading the validity of true mental illness

In an article written by Anne-Sophie Bine for The Atlantic, titled “Social Media is Redefining ‘Depression,’” Bine recounts an incident with Laura, a 16-year-old Tumblr user who fell down the online rabbit hole of mental illness as a result of social media sites.

“Certainly those who are ‘wannabe depressed’ — a term Laura used to describe those who seem to seek out and share imagery associated with torment, but are not clinically depressed — believe in their own pain, but they often blur the line between depression and commonplace negative emotions. This makes it difficult to tell what’s ‘wannabe’ and what’s clinical depression,” Bine said.

Popular text catchall phrases like “I’m dead” have become mainstream expressions. Tumblr accounts with blurred photographs bearing captions such as “no one cares how you feel” are dedicated to wallowing in self-pity.

One post even goes as far as to say, “I’m jealous of people who have enough self-control to be anorexic.” Other social media platforms like Facebook have meme pages such as “sadboys” that post grainy photos from popular television shows like “The Simpsons” and “Daria” with sad quotes that are often about the prospect of death and cite a hopeless view toward life.

People use the term “depressed” to refer to any and everything. If a friend cancels Friday night plans, he or she is “depressed.” If students receive a low score on their midterm, they’re also “depressed.” The word gets thrown around so often that it loses meaning and mislabels clinical depression.

These jokes are so commonplace that they are dangerously indicative of how “normal” mental illness has become. It is especially harmful when people blindly follow it or even convince themselves that they are suffering from a mental illness without first being clinically diagnosed and professionally treated.

Being mindful when browsing

Time in and time out again, users turn back to these accounts to cope with their emotions. In the same way that obsessing over a friend’s Instagram pictures can produce negative side effects, it may be even more blatantly dangerous when people follow sites that romanticize mental illness or toss depression jokes around on a whim.

People log onto social media sites to feel a sense of belonging. It is a safe place for them to brush off the intensity of an actual mental illness by instead twisting it in a way that comes off as artsy, vaguely romantic and somewhat beautiful. In particular, joking around about depression makes it seem almost as if it is applicable to everyone and a state of being that is desirable.

Social media sites should take accountability of their platforms, and users need to become aware of the implications of firing off misleading posts in exchange for a few likes. Glorification of mental illness through depression jokes is harmful and distorts reality while simultaneously diluting the problems of those who are truly afflicted by the matter.

Bonnie Wong, University of Southern California

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Bonnie Wong

University of Southern California

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