On Romanticising Mental Illness

December 6, 2013

I don’t often talk about personal issues of this nature on here, so please be gentle. It makes me feel uncomfortable and ashamed to admit that a huge chunk of my life is spent trying to manage mental illness. I don’t see the appeal or point of sharing this with the world and so I’ve avoided mentioning it at all for years. I’m not saying I disagree with others discussing mental health, it’s just a personal preference. What I do disagree with however, is the blatant romanticisation of mental illness, particularly online.

tumblr_m8d3r2s7Dv1qe47umo1_400Now, I’m not saying that I have a monopoly over everything labelled ‘sad feels’ stretching from depression to melancholy just because I have a psychiatrist and a diagnosis. I don’t want to imply there is a twisted elitism, that other people’s feelings are invalid or insignificant because they haven’t been committed or don’t take pills. If you’re feeling upset, sad, anxious etc. then what you are experiencing is real and important, you deserve to be shown compassion and to ask for help, but you are not necessarily #depressed.

When you have been in and out of the mental health system for years on end and when so much of your life is consumed with mental illness there are few things more frustrating than reading ‘#depression #soft grunge #pale blog’. Because I can almost guarantee that the people that post these kinds of things are not depressed and are simply promoting the idea and experience of having a mental illness as edgy and ~~cool~~ and different. They usually also glorify smoking which is also not edgy. I smoke; all it does is make me smell bad to most people and makes me cranky when I don’t get enough nicotine. There are even worse examples on the internet that glorify cutting, eating disorders and other serious, harmful, destructive actions and conditions that should not be made romanticised.

For now however, I’ll focus on depression as that is the one I am most experienced in. I find it really difficult to describe what depression is, but I’ll have a go at listing some things that depression is not:

Things that depression is not:

  • Depression is not feeling sad for a few days due to a legitimate reason.
  • Depression is not something that should be glorified, encouraged or enabled.
  • Depression is not a conscious act of attention or comfort seeking.
  • Depression is not something to aspire towards.
  • Depression is not attractive. That doesn’t mean the person suffering is not attractive, just that depression itself isn’t. It’s not tragically beautiful.
  • Depression is not relating to grey-scale pictures with seemingly deep quotes written on them.
  • Depression is not an identity.
  • Depression is not synonymous with sadness.

Speaking of which, why has simply saying that you’re sad or upset become insufficient? It’s okay to be sad, it’s enough to be sad, it’s completely normal, dramatic and valid to be sad. When you tell someone that you’re upset that should be enough for that person to take you seriously and be empathetic, it doesn’t need to be elevated to an extreme. Depression is serious, infinitely difficult, isolating and ugly. If you could really experience it and the social stigmas that accompany struggling with genuine depression outside of this grotesque romanticisation that occurs in subcultures, on the Internet or – most irritating of all – in tv shows aimed at teenagers/ young adults (Skins, for example) you wouldn’t want it. If you do then by all means take mine.

This sort of thing also applies to anxiety although that’s trickier for me to debate. In my experience, anxiety is having to get off the bus to university almost every day to throw up because my body would be overwhelmed with panic – although I’m not yet sure what this is or why it happens. It’s normal to feel awkward in social situations and it’s okay to be nervous; that doesn’t mean that you necessarily have a mental illness. And again, the terms awkward and nervous are enough, there’s no need to elevate it to such a severe level for it to make an impact.

I make a conscious effort to never apply mental health issues to my life when they don’t apply to me. For example, I would never say that I have insomnia because I have a crappy sleeping pattern and find it difficult to sleep sometimes. That’s not insomnia, that’s not managing my sleep pattern well. This means that I am often either sleep deprived or sleep too far into the day which is tricky and is cause for me to complain sometimes, but it is definitely not insomnia. Insomnia is a severe condition that affects people’s lives in difficult and painful ways and I would be insensitive and stupid to write “can’t sleep insomnia” anywhere.

All that said, these romanticised versions of mental illness can also have the opposite affect of making people feel as though they are not suffering enough, that they’re being dramatic and will be laughed out of the doctor’s because they’ve never even attempted suicide. Pfft, drama.

No: if you feel as though you have a mental illness at least consider going to a doctor.

The moment you recognise that the thoughts in your head are genuinely destructive and harmful, if you are feeling completely dissociated from reality: you go see a doctor. You are not being dramatic, you are not attention seeking, you are asking for help. I would like to say that you will be taken seriously but it is due to the increasing use of words like “depression” and “anxiety” by those who think they are equivalent to “sadness” and “being nervous sometimes” that makes it increasingly difficult.

I didn’t take myself seriously for a long time because of these issues and it got to a point where I couldn’t do anything, where I had utterly embarrassed myself on multiple occasions and I was terrified of leaving the house.

Admittedly, another reason was because my depression became more severe when I was a teenager and I was always told that teenagers are mood swingy little bastards anyway. So I thought it was completely normal until I decided (read: was persuaded) to seek help when I was seventeen. I’ve now been in and out of psychiatry for five years and could have saved myself so much struggle if I’d have just gone to the doctor earlier. I actually have an entirely different argument towards this teenagers and mental health thing; shouldn’t the fact that teenagers can be a little bit mental anyway be a big enough reason for mental health services to be more readily available and willing to help instead of just telling them their hormones are nuts like that means it’s fine? Why don’t schools encourage students to be more open about their feelings so they can manage them and learn the difference between completely natural emotions that almost everybody experiences and disorders? It should be a class or optional activity or something, I don’t know.

Anyway, what I’m trying to convey is that we shouldn’t use serious mental health issues and terms so flippantly. This causes glorification and desensitisation; overall it’s just harmful. If you feel you need to discuss a difficult aspect of your life, don’t just jump straight to the extreme and start throwing words around like they apply to any negative emotion or experience. When you or I are sad, we should say we’re sad. If we are feeling a bit anxious, we should just say that. If you are depressed, you should go see a doctor or ring your psychiatrist, make sure you’ve been taking your meds and look over your risk & relapse plans. The last thing you will probably want to do if you are depressed is write a status on Facebook or post on Tumblr about how sad and depressed you are.

I recommend watching Kevin Breel’s TED talk on depression, he really captures the problems that surround depression, many of which I haven’t touched upon.

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