Apparently there is nothing romantic about mental illness. Which is odd because the internet is awash with dark pictures depicting distress and impassioned quotes. Tumblr especially has a large collection of pro-self harm and thinspiration imagery. Does finding beauty in pain make it more acceptable? What is the function of strongly identifying with being depressed, mad or terrified?
A culture that admires and reveres mental illness has developed over the last decade on social media and like most sub-cultures it exists on a spectrum. On the severe end self harm is encouraged and eating disorders are idolised within a culture of competition. To take your own life is a way of becoming forever recognised as a suffering being.
What does denying the romanticism that some people see in suffering do to the debate around ‘glamorising mental illness’?
The backlash against this glamorisation appears to involve stating firmly that it is neither attractive or trendy and that it needs to stop. These articles inevitably go on to talk about what mental illness ‘actually is’:
“It is not cool or romantic. It is waking up crying because you are alive another day. It is feeling as if you have no purpose on Earth. It is the blanket of pain at 3 a.m. and the thoughts of suicide that are screaming in your mind.”
This feels rather simplistic and patronising and appears to be missing the crucial point; that some people find meaning and validation in suffering. As a society we are often told to ‘man up’ or’get on with it’. Not functioning well enough in a career or in a relationship is often judged as weak. From a young age children can be told ‘don’t cry, you don’t need to be upset’. Does this lack of validation about the suffering we experience, both from within the family and within wider culture encourage some to create emotionally-charged material that is popular with others? Perhaps if someone is feeling stigmatised then romanticising what they are experiencing makes it more bearable.
Glamorising pain obviously has a downside, it can encourage vulnerable people to sink into further troubles and take up coping mechanisms like self harm that are often not advantageous. But to intervene and have a conversation about this we need to recognise the reasons behind the allure and fascination of suffering.