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By Madeline Perez

Mental illness comes with more than just a diagnosis. As stated by Wulf Rössler in The Stigma of Mental Disorders, “There is no country, society or culture where people with mental illness have the same societal value as people without a mental illness.” Societal stigma against mentally ill people is an ever-changing form, shaped through education, media, and their effects (or lack thereof) on individuals. Our culture can greatly affect how we understand mental illness, perceiving it through a warped lens of trends, music, television, and more recently, social media. While doing wonders for ‘awareness’ that these disorders exist, these representations are often more harmful than helpful in giving accurate information to the general public. Mental illness needs to be both taken more seriously and freed from the thousands of wacky connotations it’s gotten wrapped up in throughout the decades.  

During the ‘60s, care for the mentally ill began to shift from mental asylums to more humane independent community centers and outpatient treatments, facilitated by pharmaceutical advancements at the time. Now that mental illness was more out in the open, it garnered more attention from sociologists and scientists. Letting their biases on the authenticity of mental illness sway their thinking, they wrongly perpetuated the idea that the consequences of mental health disorders were brought about by how psychiatry was organized. Basically, they blamed diagnostic labels and medications for “creating” mental illness. In 1975, this belief was illustrated in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where the mentally ill would be better served anywhere else than under the thumb of “Big Psychiatry.” The idea that mental illness ‘really isn’t actually so bad haha’ and only becomes harmful when people ‘make a big deal out of it’ has persisted and remains one of the biggest societal obstacles to mental health treatment today. 

Flashforward to the futuristic ‘90s. Mood rings were taking the continental U.S. by storm, skateboarding got really popular for some reason, and music as a whole had finally started getting good. The “age of anxiety” of the ‘60s insidiously became an “age of depression” by the mid-’90s, and we saw this reflected in our media. For the first time, depression was not the societal death sentence it once was. It was… cool? Movie conflicts started to opt for a more complicated “man vs. self” dynamic, especially by the late 90s. Mental-health-related hits like Girl, Interrupted and The Virgin Suicides (both 1999, the well-known best year for American film) showed us that women struggled with these feelings too (sometimes in a way that was more palatable to audiences, but I’m not getting into that right now.) Grunge music focusing on self-loathing and being a virgin defined a decade. Suddenly, everything was very I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo. 

Bands like Nirvana, Radiohead, and Weezer (along with a billion others that became popular during this time), wrote songs about feelings of worthlessness, depressed mood, and thoughts of suicide, choosing to write their songs most likely using a DSM-5 symptom generator. Culturally, a feeling of loneliness had swept over the youth. Divorce rates had been rising, bullying was really cool at the time, and both parents had to work in order to make sufficient income. Contrary to The Who, the kids were not, in fact, alright. Luckily, depression and other mental health disorders were no longer hidden away as strictly as they once were due to these cultural changes. This is not to say the stigma disappeared—it was very much real and pervasive at the time—but people were becoming better at acknowledging their problems and seeking treatment. All in all, I see this as a win. (But that’s not to say depressive disorders weren’t growing in prominence too. Anti-depressant use nearly doubled, which I don’t think can be chalked up to just ‘more people were seeking treatment’. )

By the mid-90s, internet message boards had become a huge game changer for communication, for better or worse. On one hand, people suffering from things like abuse and mental illness could talk to people in similar situations, befriend others that understood them better, and find better resources and ways to cope. Going from a community where no one you know has the same problems to the internet could help many feel like they weren’t alone. On the other hand, this further isolated people from their real lives and sometimes put them in situations where things like self-harm, isolation, and eating disorders were normalized and even encouraged. And I don’t say normalized like “oh, this is a thing that exists,”. I say normalized like “oh, this is a thing that isn’t necessarily wrong so you don’t need to seek help for it.” Many of these have persisted to this day, as even pro-anorexia (aka Proana) forums still exist, promoting tips on starvation diets, pills, purging, and pictures of anorexic people known as “thin inspiration” (a.k.a. Thinspiration). While music and movies were a big influence on ways people got exposed to or understood mental illness, nothing would or will ever come close to the effect internet communication sites and social media has had on perceptions of mental health. 

During this time, themes of addiction also started becoming prevalent. We saw the first opioid epidemic wave, with heroin becoming widely popular (though not as popular as prescription pills. Don’t worry though, heroin will have its time. And by that I mean 2010.) Like depression during the time, it seemed to be taken lightly, normalized, and trendy. “Heroin-chic” was popularized in the early ‘90s, a style characterized by paleness, dark under-eye circles, and an emaciated type of thinness normally seen in addicts. This bled into the 2000s as eating disorders practically became a part of pop culture, represented in media as a trivial thing that young women did, rather than anorexia being portrayed as the serious mental illness (with the highest mortality rate) that it is.  Being a victim of addiction, abuse, and mental illness made you different. It made you less ‘complacent’ in a society that chose to hide away anything gruesome or dark. It made you privy to intense suffering, transforming you into a more ‘real’ person who has known the full spectrum of human emotion. Right? Doesn’t suffering make you smarter, sharpen your priorities, cutting away the ‘truly important’ from the trivial? Wrong. Very wrong.

That’s not to say that it can never shape someone’s life for the better. Many believe that experiencing suffering has made them more empathetic to the feelings of others, and I don’t deny that. However, it can also put you on a different path, believing that the suffering of others is trivial compared to what you’ve gone through, and if no one helped you when you needed it, then others are equally undeserving. The learned empathy can also become more extreme, turning into a codependent obsession where if you can prevent other people from going through what you went through, that could somehow absolve your pain from the past. There are plenty of other, healthy ways to learn how to be empathetic that don’t cost you years of suffering. 

As a general trend, those who are aforementioned victims of addiction, abuse, and mental illness do not have better, or more ‘real’ lives. Their priorities can be warped by their experiences in unhealthy ways that have the potential to hurt the people around them. As the saying goes, “hurt people hurt people.” True reprioritization and wisdom comes from healing from traumatic experiences or learning to manage mental illness or addiction. This is what helps people grow, what makes people empathetic, and can help lead to a fulfilling life. 

Current day, we are seeing an online romanticization of mental illness. (Hey! That’s the title!) On social media sites, like Twitter and TikTok, an increasing number of people are flaunting negative traumatic experiences. This is perfectly characterized by the “grippy sock clout” trend, where people who have been admitted to mental hospitals (where grippy socks are put on patients—a practice common in all hospitals, actually) have coded inside jokes about the experience. Basically, ‘only people who have gone through what I went through will get this.’

I’m not telling anyone how to cope with their disorder; if joking about it to thousands is what helps, then it helps. But when people’s only education about the disorder is jokes online, it can provide a very warped view of the seriousness of certain mental illnesses. It also leads to many feeling like the more traumatic experiences they have, the more valid their opinions are on the topic, the more ‘real’ their pain was, and the more attention they should get from strangers online.  It’s a disturbing trend, and I’d argue it leads to people focusing more on the worst experiences of their lives, rather than trying to heal from them. I mean, in a world where pain = popularity, why would you ever want to heal? 

It’s sad to say that in some cases, people play up their experiences, sometimes making them up completely. While this is difficult to prove (and people should be taken at face value until proven otherwise), there have been instances of people making up disorders such as Tourette’s in order to garner fame by talking about their experiences, all while interrupting themselves with forced tics. It’s important to keep in mind that most people are not lying, but have trouble understanding healthy ways to reach out to others for help. A lot of these people need sympathy they’re not getting from the people in their lives, or don’t have resources to get professional help. Instead, they unhealthily turn to strangers who they know will most likely give them positive attention. This has been happening for years, and stems from one huge societal problem: people don’t know how to help others with mental illness or disorders, don’t take it seriously, and will not accommodate those in their lives who have it. 

The concept of online self-diagnosis has also been growing in popularity, and mainly is the result of people who meet some of the symptoms of a disease or disorder, but not enough to be diagnosed, seeking the accommodations and validity they think diagnosed people receive (this is not including those who would be diagnosed but do not have resources to seek help). The thought that ‘maybe, if I were diagnosed, people would be more empathetic toward me. They would understand that I have a real, bonafide diagnosis that proves my feelings are not trivial’. This behavior is harmful, as it leads to the belief that other people who are actually diagnosed might also be making it up. This is not to mention the fact that no one should want their symptoms to be worsened in order to feel like their experiences are valid or to be taken more seriously. 

The way to prevent this from happening is not to shame those who engage in these behaviors. These people are already hurting, and while “attention seeking” is always viewed as negative, needing attention is not a negative thing. The only way to prevent these behaviors is to support the idea that one doesn’t need a diagnosis for their negative experiences to be taken seriously, to be accommodated by others, or for being valid in one’s differences. We need to approach this issue with a sort of real-life radical empathy, accepting others for who they are, diagnosed or not, and understanding when they need someone to listen, advise, or help. Employers need to be cognizant of this and stop treating their employees like robots who should never have problems that affect their work performance. Schools should adopt different testing and work practices that are more flexible for students’ stress levels and comfort. Most importantly, we need to be accepting of everyone’s differences, and not assume that emotional problems or specific hang-ups do not make someone ‘weak,’ ‘attention-seeking,’ or ‘weird.’ 

The worst-case scenario of this idea is some people taking advantage of accommodations when they don’t necessarily need to. The worst-case scenario of the alternative is millions of people who need consideration not receiving it, and having potentially damaging experiences as a result. We are all human, so let’s be humane. Peace out!

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