To start off, the growing acceptance of mental illness as a topic of discussion and something people should be comfortable with expressing openly is a great thing. One can only hope the subject picks up steam and one day the archaic stigma that surrounds it is erased. I love reading posts from people I know who’ve struggled in the past, writing about some positive developments in their life or just how they are feeling better today. This post isn’t about the positives though; in fact the kinds of posts I’m focussing on generally perpetuate either a more hopeless or completely falsified version of living with a mental illness.
Trying to picture what Depression looks like is a near impossible task as there are no definitive physical traits that all sufferers share. I mean, dark eyes from loss of sleep, an emotionally vacant expression and an unhealthy body size are all stereotypes of the illness but the reality is that even the most bright-eyed healthy looking person in the world could be battling Depression. When I picture Depression I think of my late Grandmother, cooped up in her house sleeping and smoking the remainder of her life away with reckless abandon. What I don’t think of is some dead-eyed glamour shot, complete with cold filters and sexual insinuations to boot.
Search the tag Depression in any social network such as Instagram or Tumblr and increasingly strewn amongst a slew of “inspirational” quotes are self-shots and other typically aesthetically pleasing images. It’s so ingrained into that side of internet culture now that it feels strange to question it, but why do people insist of tagging otherwise decent pictures of themselves with things like #depression or #suicidal?
The obvious answer is, as I stated above, with the growing acceptance of mental health issues as something you can open up about, people have no qualms with posting about their daily battles with mental illness. The problem with this argument is that the content itself has nothing to do with discussing the realities of the mental illnesses they (presumably) face, and everything to do with the shallow pursuit of online recognition. When you post a decent picture of yourself online, you are sharing an image of yourself that you want other people to think of when they think of you, ideally you are posting the best, most appealing version of yourself. That’s where the grand contradiction comes into play; if the image you’re posting is supposed to encompass the best elements of you, why accompany it with a proclamation of a mental illness?
The apparent attraction to mental illness, I believe, goes hand in hand with the idea of “the hot mess”, an individual who is inescapably self-destructive but also attractive. The overly pale complexion, grimy filters, deadpan glare and many other elements of the #depression aesthetic seem to channel this caricature heavily. Accompanying this, is the problematic and flat-out incorrect stereotype that all individuals who lean towards the more creative or innovative persuasions in life suffer with some kind of mental anguish. The “all geniuses are crazy” stereotype does have an element of truth behind it because yes, many creative geniuses throughout history did suffer from obvious mental illnesses. To assume or insinuate that mental illness is some kind of pre-determined attribute for genius is simply misguided.
In many ways the people who post these kinds of images are no different to the people who once cluttered every corner of Myspace, warning visitors that they are “slightly deranged” whilst proudly donning a dyed black side-fringe. As the conversation about mental illness swelled however, it was no longer edgy to say that you were “a bit wild”, no, now we have technical terms for your eccentricities, like Anxiety or Bipolar.
The negative consequences of this growing phenomenon are glaringly obvious. It mocks the actual struggles of people who have the mental illnesses these posts tag like a shopping list and more frighteningly it perpetuates the negative narrative of mental illness. Depression isn’t a death sentence and there are so many examples people who have overcome it to lead a fruitful and happy life. The #depression aesthetic doesn’t promote self-improvement or seek to help anyone; it encourages people with mental illness to revel in the darkest parts of their mind and actively discourages reaching for the light. Furthermore it tells people without mental illnesses that they’re missing out. “Look at how sexy and edgy this model is with her smudged makeup and drugged out glaze, you can never be this attractive without some kind of mental illness.”
The face of mental illness isn’t some glamour model emulating her best coked-up stare into 30 different monochrome Instagram filters; it’s probably lying in some hospital bed right now after an attempted suicide, its arms strewn with tubes and needles the doctors use to keep it alive while its family weeps in the waiting area. Nothing fucking glamorous about that.