Imagine this: You wake up every morning with an ache in your chest. You haven’t showered in three days, because you’re too mentally exhausted to wash the grease from your hair, let alone function as a normal human being. You’re sitting in class but the teacher’s words are meaningless, distant, and indistinct. You feel this constant emptiness in your chest, and you feel like crying, but you don’t know why.
You’re nervous. You’ve been fourteen minutes late to school every day this week, with no explanation for your tardiness except that you couldn’t get out of bed. Your mind cycles through a seemingly endless spiral of irrational thoughts, and you’re just tired. This is the harsh reality of the cycle of depression.
Imagine this: You go online looking for solace, a place where you can feel like you belong, a place where you can feel loved. You see a girl in a black and white photograph with perfectly tousled hair, eyeliner artfully smeared across her cheeks, and smudges of violet underneath her eyes. The caption on the photo describes how suffering is beautiful, how depression is “mysterious.” You scroll further and find blogs about self-harm that present cutting as the best way to deal with your emotions. These posts ultimately convince you that suicide is the best option.
This is the sad reality that many young people have experienced in response to the rise of self-harm in depression blogs and content on social media.
Over the years, the conversation surrounding mental illness has experienced a profound shift. For much of the 20th century, mental illness was not addressed at all and was instead ignored and extremely stigmatized. As the decades went on, depression and other mental illnesses were brought to the forefront of public attention through celebrities who talked about their experiences with the disease. However, with the increased prevalence of social media, online communities have formed what are perpetuating ideas of “beautiful suffering”. This facilitates negative feelings and misunderstandings of what it means to be clinically depressed.
One of the main social media sites that has perpetuated the idea of depression being “beautiful” and “mysterious” is Tumblr, a platform where social communities often form around specific topics. Individuals have their own blogs, and can quickly share images, photos, and other media through the act of “reblogging” a post. Individuals often form communities around different disorders seeking some form of support and acceptance. However, with depression, in particular, the culture on photo and video sharing websites like Tumblr and Instagram has shifted from supporting people who are clinically depressed to glamorizing ideas of sadness. Black and white photographs of mystical emaciated women who stare off into the distance put psychological torment and beauty on the same page. Quotes like “So it’s okay for you to hurt me, but I can’t hurt myself?” and “I want to die a lovely death,” try to justify self-harm. All this is at the tip of anyone’s fingertips: anyone can search tags like “self-harm,” “depression,” or “sadness,” and find thousands of blogs with a similarly distorted vision of what it means to be depressed.
In addition to perpetuating negative feelings, beautification of depression often leads to people taking the disease less seriously. People begin to blame the victim, and instead of accepting clinical depression as a chemical imbalance in the brain, people begin to believe that people with depression are faking it for the attention. People who self-harm, in particular, are often targets of these misconceptions. Instead of scars from self-harm being seen as cries for help, these injuries are misconstrued as superficial pleas for attention.
This glorification of self-pity, as well as victim blaming, takes away from the fact that depression is a very real, and often very debilitating mental illness that starkly contrasts with the pretty pastel photos on social media. The glamorization of depression only adds to the stigma surrounding the illness. Although it is a step in the right direction that many individuals are talking about depression online, we need to foster communities that talk about depression in a way that breaks down stigma instead of adding to it.
The Atlantic. (2013, October 28). Social media is redefining depression. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/10/social-media-is-redefining-depression/280818/
Periscope | I Want to Die a Lovely Death: the Glamorization of Depression in Popular Culture. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.chsperiscope.com/perspectives/2015/02/16/i-want-to-die-a-lovely-death-the-glamorization-of-depression-in-popular-culture/
Tanner, E. (2015). Girls, Instagram, and the glamorization of self-loathing. Dissenting Voices, 4(1). Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1046&context=dissentingvoices