While in 2020, we no longer shock, burn, or bury ice picks in people’s brains, those with mental illness still struggle to feel understood and find acceptance. The stigma surrounding mental illness still runs rampant, and is primarily what prevents many people from discussing it and even seeking treatment.
Patrick Corrigan, a psychologist who spent years studying stigma, argues that “people with mental illness often believe that they are less valued because of their psychiatric disorder”. In this article, I discuss this phenomenon on the internet, and how jokes surrounding mental illness create community.
Through certain discriminatory behaviors, society has shown those with mental illness no such acceptance. These behaviors include employers avoiding workers with mental illness by not hiring them, landlords wanting to protect their tenants from people with mental illness and not provide rent to them, and even simply knowing that persons exhibiting symptoms and signs of severe mental illness are more likely than others to be arrested by the police.
As a result of these stigmas, many people with mental health issues have frequented the internet to feel understood. One of these communities is Tumblr. The site offers features such as posting, liking, “reblogging” (or reposting) posts, following other blogs, and messaging, anonymously and not anonymously.
Because of Tumblr’s uniqueness, it is a hub for the gathering and growth of deviant or stigmatized communities. This may explain why those struggling with mental illness find a home there, and why the site attracts users from various subcultures that may struggle with mental illness.
Because of the anonymity the cite provides, users enjoy the ability to be open. With no fear of stigma, they feel like they can be their “real” selves. In “Tumblr Fandoms, Community & Culture,” many users described Tumblr granting them the freedom to be oneself. One user said that “[users] can be themselves in ways that they would not be able to anywhere else. I participate as ‘me,’ and sometimes … how I would like to be in real life. I feel more confident about myself there” (Hillman et al. 2014:288). They also felt a broader sense of belonging and connectedness with other users through shared jargon.
Wendy Syfret, a writer for Vice recounts the anecdotes of four meme creators. Sebastian Tribbie, Julia Nathanson, Maddie Knight, and Deirdre Fidge, who note the anonymity of memes allow them to better cope. Nathanson notes that although she hates talking about her problems, her page has provided an unexpected point of release. For example, while discussing her meme-making process, she explains that “[she’ll] make a meme about something when [she’s] sure [she] can’t talk about it with anyone else because [she has] already talked about it too much, or it’s just too personal, or it’s a secret, … [it] feels like someone else is saying it … It softens the blow of regular conversation.” (Syfret, 2017) Nathanson’s candid statement shows how impactful memes can indeed be when it comes to people dealing with mental illness.
However, many people note that these memes are detrimental to those struggling with it, and the conversation around it. Laura Nicoara in her Areo article, argues that memes create awareness and help de-stigmatize the topic. However, they also romanticize mental illness in a way that turns it into a product for consumption.
Because of this transformation, individuals perform their mental illness in a way that follows a narrative. In essence, she cites memes as the commodification of mental illness. This means ultimately, that mental health problems are no longer experienced as something that merely happens to the sufferer but rather, as an act they must put on for the internet.
However, she also notes that without proper treatment alongside their viewing, “… [the] humor [will be used] as a form of ongoing avoidance or denial of reality, and when it’s used in place of or instead of getting appropriate psychological treatment for a mental health problem from an appropriate licensed professional, it can be damaging,” Despite their contentious use on the internet in regards to mental health, it is clear that these memes are an effective means of providing a supportive community where society fails to provide one.
Regardless of our views, we should all try and take a lesson from this. It truly is tough to talk about mental illness. But we should ask, connect with people living with them, try to be there, and be a part of that community, for them.