For years, people who suffer from mental illness have been deemed dangerous or unstable — not normal. Though society has made significant steps to destigmatize them recently, there has been a rise in romanticizing this suffering and making it into something desirable and aesthetic.
Concepts such as “manic pixie dream girls,” a female love-interest media trope that consists of a woman who usually suffers from depression or mania that the male protagonist glamorizes, are examples of this. She is seen as quirky and unique because of her neurodivergence, but not to a debilitating amount.
This trope and others like it perpetuate this standard that mental illness is attractive, but only enough to make one different, rather than the kind that hinders one’s life. But mental illnesses are also treatable and should not define people.
As someone who has suffered from various forms of mental illness, there is nothing romantic or glamorous about it. There’s doubting oneself, inability to trust one’s own mind, deep depression, thoughts of suicide, debilitating anxiety and many other forms. It does not make someone aesthetic or unique — it is a common human disorder that can make life harder for a lot of people.
The popular social media platform Tumblr has been under scrutiny for the romanticization of mental illness. Hashtags such as “depression,” “self-harm” and others show black-and-white visually aesthetic photos that make these conditions seem alluring. These tags promote the thoughts and feelings of others who look at them and hope to achieve that desirability.
Tumblr has seemed to rectify these concerns by asking if users are okay when searching for things like “self-harm” and offering a suicide helpline number. But to those who grew up on these kinds of posts, the damage is already done.
Instead of trying to help those who feel the same way, the creators who make these posts only push for popularity and go with the trend. These were the posts that got attention and notes, even if they harmed others.
I believe there has to be a middle ground between mental illness making people dangerous and making people beautiful, because both extremes have detrimental consequences.
Other examples are found in “pro-ana” and “thinspo” tags, which promote anorexia and eating disorders as a way to lose a lot of weight in unhealthy and dangerous ways. In one post, a user wrote, “Looking for an ana buddy,” which translates to asking for someone to help them continue their eating disorders together to lose weight.
It is incredibly hard to scroll through people asking for things like that, showing photos of thin women and promoting starvation to get there, usually to young, impressionable girls. So, despite Tumblr giving users resources and helplines when searching for these things, it still allows for harmful imagery and a toxic community.
Many other forms of media and societal norms display this sort of behavior. Even with the best intentions, these forms can still fall victim to this romanticization instead of trying to destigmatize them.
The popular Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” has been accused of promoting suicide and self-harm in its first season. It was meant to open up a conversation surrounding mental health and suicide awareness, but in its efforts to do so, it fell short.
The premise of the show is a bit messed up on its own, following the story of a high school girl who blamed people in her life for her suicide, which was shown in gruesome detail. By doing this, the creators of the show are perpetuating the standard that she has gained power and control only after she chose to die by suicide, according to Stanford University student Anima Shrestha’s report. It is not recommending help or treatment, but the dangerous alternative.
Suicide is hardly ever planned in a methodical, detailed way, therefore making this an inaccurate and harmful representation to young viewers, the National Alliance on Mental Illness writes. NAMI also reported that suicide Google searches even increased after the show was made, which directly correlates with actual suicides. Even a 1% increase in these searches caused an additional 54 deaths, according to the American Council of Science and Health.
Self-harm and struggling do not make one “tragically beautiful”. They are cries for help and should be treated as such.
In saying all of this, however, there is a way to portray mental illness on screen and on social media correctly.
The Netflix television show “Bojack Horseman” is one example of a story that includes mentally ill and flawed characters. Bojack is an imperfect character, and he receives the consequences of his deeply hurtful actions throughout the show. They also tap into the childhood trauma that led him to who he turned out to be without excusing his harmful behavior.
It never excuses his behavior and others like him in the show — it gave reasons and showed the realistic implications of his choices. He did not get the happy ending viewers expected of a traditional protagonist because of it.
I believe we should continue to write realistic and proper portrayals of mental illness and stop allowing posts that continue to show unrealistic and toxic depictions of things such as self-harm, anxiety, depression and more. We will be heading in the right direction if we do so to show mental illness for what it truly is and not through rose-colored glasses.