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.
In my last post I touched on the 1 in 4 statistic, so often used when discussing mental health. Like most mickey-mouse statistics it is catchy and easily understood, it’s been used globally by the NHS, mental health charities, anti-stigma campaigns and the WHO to name but a few. This widespread use has entered the phase into mainstream discourse. What are the implications of this?
Its worth stating that there is no solid data behind the one in four statistic. I wont go into criticising the study the statistic is based on, for more details see here. The reality is there has never been a longitudinal study into any rates of mental illness or subjective states of suffering. The WHO attempted it, but the results came out as nearly 1 in 2. Regardless of the validity of any statistic we should not need to rely on catchy phrases to reduce stigma about mental illness.
1 in 4 attempts to “normalise” and reduce stigma by putting forward the idea that a quarter of us will suffer from a mental health problem, therefore as it is such a large proportion of the population it must be half-way acceptable mustn’t it? and actually 25% of us are not shouting at trees with tin foil hats on are we? Unfortunately this partitioning off of a quarter of the population just continues to generate and advance the very stigma that the statistic is trying to diminish.
1 in 4 puts forward that if a quarter of us suffer from mental illness, then mental illness is common and if mental illness is common then it is nothing to be ashamed of, but this just reinforces the view that if something is “abnormal” then it is shameful. If it was 1 in 40,000 it would still be unfair and immoral to discriminate.
We can see this discrimination occurring in response to rarer and less understood diagnoses. Most people will have experienced some sort of anxiety or felt down at points, talking about depression and anxiety is much more acceptable than disclosing schizophrenia or a personality disorder. I wonder whether shame is more apparent in people who have been diagnosed with more “severe and enduring” disorders.
1 in 4 also serves to downplay the terrible suffering that some people experience. 1 in 4 implies that it isn’t such a major deal, lots of people encounter it and get by just fine. This undermines the seriousness of the distress and pain people endure on a daily basis and the consequences of this. 800,000 to 1 million people die as a result of suicide every year. Lets have compassion for everyone that suffers and not just because it is “normal” or common.