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What did you expect when you put a bunch of self-deprecating teenagers together?

If you spend any amount of time on Tumblr, you’ll hear the term “self-care” thrown about a lot. Self-care encompasses a very millennial-esque kind of lifestyle that’s very visible on Tumblr — and it’s notoriously vague. Some blogs stress treating yourself or doing what feels good, for instance watching Netflix, painting your nails or having a bubble bath, while others argue that’s not good for you in the long term. In reality caring for yourself means forcing yourself to get out of bed, eat healthily and interact with others.

The problem is that the definition of self-care changes from person to person. Popular posts satirize this with jokes like “self-care is listening to Toto by Africa for 22 hours straight” and “self-care is drinking directly from a puddle in the Taco Bell drive thru.”

The fact that popular in-jokes on the site revolve around mental health, though, illustrates the fact that Tumblr has been very much at the forefront of opening up a conversation about mental health that was long overdue — particularly about depression. It’s helped create a culture where it’s commonplace to talk about depression with your friends, family, professors and co-workers. However, despite this, Tumblr still doesn’t seem to be a very happy place. Users talk openly about their struggles with mental illness, but no one seems to be healing.

I used Tumblr fairly frequently as a teenager, and I still check up occasionally. What surprised me, considering I felt like the bloggers I followed seemed generally friendly, kind and smart, was that when I quit the site, I became significantly happier. And when I recently dipped back in, I could immediately feel a difference. It was like a cloud had come over me.

The problem, in my opinion, partly lies with the unique attitude of millennial and Gen Z internet spaces. Many people know about the extreme ironic nihilism of 4chan: it’s arguably part of how the alt-right movement took off. But this logic applies to other parts of the internet too, just in watered-down form. Twitter is littered with memes about what basically comes down to despair or apathy, framed as jokes about navigating life as a young adult. Buzzfeed compiles humor listicles called things like “27 Tumblr posts you’ll only get if you have depression.”

This kind of humor is enigmatic. Is it a coping mechanism for the postmodern condition? Or is it just that the language of depression has been co-opted as a new trend?

Whatever the answer is though, it’s something bigger than just memes. It’s especially visible on Tumblr that the people making these jokes are often really struggling. But when you get stuck in a loop of being a part of a social media community that only discusses mental health through this nihilistic lens, a vicious circle emerges of depressed people enabling each other’s depression. There’s plenty of much-needed sympathy and empathy, but no real growth.

This is especially a problem since depression memes and jokes are often very self-deprecating: a coping mechanism that often comes from a real place of pain or self-hatred. Comedian Hannah Gadsby’s hit Netflix special recently touched on this: Gadsby explained that for her, self-deprecation is “humiliation.”

Online communities of people coping with mental illness — again particularly on Tumblr — are nevertheless very supportive and share an understanding of each other, fostering a no-judgement zone for people who are in a bad place and struggling to cope. This is, obviously, a good thing. Having a community of people struggling with the same things as you, being able to talk about your experiences without shame and knowing depression isn’t your fault are all incredibly important. But if applied in the wrong way — especially mixed with extreme self-deprecation — Tumblr’s culture can lead to a kind of state of resignation; the all-in-it-together vibe instead becomes a we-can-never-get-better one.

This is where self-care comes back into the picture. The internet’s layers of self-deprecation, irony, apathy and resignation create the perfect conditions for it. That’s because self-care isn’t meant to fix mental illness; it’s meant to be a coping mechanism to help you get through the day. And of course, mental health issues are much more complex than simply having a disease with a cure, but there’s a difference between acknowledging this and getting stuck in a place of hopelessness.

Not to mention self-care culture opens up an opportunity to sell products. Stores have very much jumped onto the self-care bandwagon, selling what could almost be described as depression merch: adult coloring books, bullet journals and bath bombs are all marketed as self-care essentials, integral to carving an individual path of wellbeing. But mental health is more complicated than taking days off to make smoothies and journal.

There’s no secret trick to having good mental health; for many it’s a constant, exhausting uphill battle. But to start that battle, the conversation needs to shift beyond the mire of products and memes that it’s all too easy to get stuck in online. The online landscape desperately needs to change, to foster an environment of support rather than just an atmosphere of a half-joking sort of resignation.

It’s this atmosphere, I think, that means Tumblr can be a place of openness and solidarity for those struggling with depression and other mental illness, and simultaneously a very depressing place in itself. Tumblr frames the narrative around depression as something unchangeable that you just need to learn to cope with — and it’s failing the people that need help and a chance to begin a healing journey. Like any part of the internet, Tumblr demonstrates both utopian possibilities and ugly realities. And people struggling with mental illness, like everybody, won’t find all the answers there.

Writer Profile

Jen Tombs

University of Warwick
English Literature

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