Although social media, TV shows, and movies help bring positive awareness to mental health, in some cases, the way it has been portrayed in recent years has turned into a toxic trend. Historically, the media has portrayed mental illness as negative and stigmatizing. However, mental health has gone from stigmatized to glamorized. What may look glossy and pretty on a screen is extremely different than it appears, as there is nothing romantic about mental illness in real life. “The tragic realities of these fatal illnesses are hidden behind a facade of heart-tugging quotes, images, and videos romanticizing the beauty in sadness” (1). This false representation of mental illness can worsen acute mental conditions in teens and adolescents. Having a mental illness is not “the norm”, but that’s what it has become online.
It may seem strange to think of a mental illness as desirable, but our need to feel included is enough for this desire to become a reality. Starting in 2019, it became all about being sad online. “Trendy” emotional distress posted on social media is now part of many must-follow accounts across all platforms. While the flood of social media campaigns encouraging people to speak about their mental health has led to mental health education and awareness, it also has become a new way to fit in online. This is not to say that we should not talk openly about mental health issues online. The problem is that people are glorifying and not accurately portraying mental health experiences with proper context. More and more teenagers are now thinking that depression, anxiety, anorexia, and OCD are “cool” (4). There are even clothing brands that have been printing phrases on clothes that say “anxiety queen” or “depressed for life”, written in a stylish way. While everyone gets depressed and anxious at times, disorders are very serious and those terms should not be used lightly. When the internet, clothing brands, and social media apps normalize those terms to the point where they become a common joke or saying, the term loses its severity and meaning.
If a character is only compelling because they suffer from some form of mental illness, it makes the audience view their disorder as a way to stand out, and feel special. The media treats mental illness like a personality trait, like something that may be cute, quirky, and funny. Many TV shows and movies make mental illness look this way. “13 Reasons Why” is just one of the many examples of the media portraying mental illness as a means of getting attention. This series faced a great deal of criticism for how they portrayed depression and suicide, as the show romanticized suicide and suggested to viewers that people will pay more attention to them if they engage in it. It made it seem like suicide equals popularity. But, in reality, people who suffer from depression do not end their lives for attention – instead they are overcome with pain and complex emotions. Another show, “Euphoria”, that portrays characters with mental illness, has a very glamorous look with glitter, cinematic music, and vibrant lights, which all mask the real struggles of mental illness. The show stars Zendaya as Rue Bennett, who is a teen with a substance addiction. Through the portrayal of her addiction she is shown as excellent, and even desirable. The show promotes unhealthy ways to deal with struggles, as instead of showing ways to reach out for support, the characters turn to drugs and drinking. TV shows have a tendency to over-dramatize for entertainment, but mental health struggles should not be seen as something that makes you cooler or more interesting (3).
One of the largest social media platforms right now is TikTok. Although TikTok is a great app for funny videos and connection, there are many harmful posts and hashtags related to mental health. TikTok’s community guidelines do restrict eating disorder-related content on its platform, however, users will often make subtle edits to words so that they can continue to post harmful videos. “In its December report, the CCDH identified 56 TikTok hashtags using ‘coded’ language, under which it found potentially harmful eating disorder content” (6). Among these videos were topics promoting unhealthy weight loss, restrictive diets, and “thinspo”. In November, “the views across these hashtags stood at 13.2 billion. When CCDH reviewed them in January, it found that the number of views on videos using the hashtags had grown to more than 14.8 billion” (6). Every viewer represents a potential victim. This is just one specific example of the promotion of mental illness, as there are so many more.
While many people may try to go online to seek comfort in knowing that they are not alone, the effects can be harmful. First, romanticizing mental health creates misunderstandings about people with these challenges and disorders. Second, it shifts the focus from people who are actually suffering from any such illness and invalidating their experiences. Third, it creates a desire for mental illness, which can lead to false claims of having one. This involves associating any mental illness with everyday events or moods (5). Interacting with social media is inevitable, but it is crucial that we stop romanticizing mental health. Boundaries in this area are crucial for the mental health of our country.
By: Ali Green
Social Media Intern, The Grove Counseling & Consulting, LLC
1. Washburn, Lily. “Mental Illness: From Stigmatized to Glamorized.” Ka Leo O Kalani, www.kaleookalani.org/4817/editorials/mental-illness-from-stigmatized-to-glamorized/.
2. Cabral, Sasha. “Op-Ed: From Stigmatized to Glamorized: Mental Illness in the Media.” Upstream News, 8 Dec. 2021, cvhsnews.org/7373/opinion/op-ed-from-stigmatized-to-glamorized-mental-illness-in-media/.
3. Tate, Alexa. “The Problem with the Media Glamorizing Mental Illness.” The Prospector, 24 May 2022, binghamprospector.org/arts-and-entertainment/2022/05/24/the-problem-with-the-media-glamorizing-mental-illness/.
4. Joho, Jess. “How Being Sad, Depressed, and Anxious Online Became Trendy.” Mashable, 28 June 2019, mashable.com/article/anxiety-depression-social-media-sad-online.
5. https://www.facebook.com/prerna.singh.5095. “Why Are We Romanticising Mental Illness on Social Media?” Feminism in India, 26 June 2018, feminisminindia.com/2018/06/27/romanticising-mental-illness-social-media/.
6. “Views on TikTok Hashtags Hosting Eating Disorder Content Continue to Climb, Research Says.” Sky News, news.sky.com/story/views-on-tiktok-hashtags-hosting-eating-disorder-content-continue-t o-climb-research-says-12823741. Accessed 24 May 2023.