Is Mental Illness Romanticized? Angst vs. Illness, Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Art & More

Mental and physical ailments have always been stigmatized, so it’s great that we’re breaking down some of the barriers to understanding, like fear and ignorance. I wonder, though, if some of our acceptance of mental illness has been amplified and distorted to romanticize mental illness, while the actual victims of it are still met with judgement.

I was scrolling through my Reader on Monday when I stumbled across Victoria’s post on the romanticization of mental illness. When I realized how lengthy my response would be if I typed all I wanted to say, I thought hey, this could be a post!

Angst vs. illness

One could look to things like Tumblr, a blog site that features dark, pensive aesthetics and sooo much melodrama, along with shows like 13 Reasons Why (debatably promotes the idea of “getting back at bullies” by committing suicide) as two of many examples that mental illness is being romanticized. But, let’s get real: young people have always been angsty. Look at Nirvana for crying out loud! I was in high school 2007-2011, meaning I grew up in the “emo kid” era–bangs to hide one or both eyes, pop-punk and screamo music, clothes from Hot Topic. I’m sure all of you remember how “teen angst” was channeled during your adolescent years.

We should realize that angst and illness are different. One thing I recall from the emo era that falls more in line with illness is the normalization of “cutting” (see pic to the right). Tumblr is mostly an outlet for teen angst, but a show promoting suicide for vengeance feels like crossing a line. As I continue, remember that while angst should be distinguished from illness, there is always some overlap between the two.

The influence of social media & meme culture

Why have anxiety and depression become popular? It seems like everyone is dealing with these struggles! I credit social media and, specifically, meme culture. [SN: Efforts to remove the stigma of mental illness have likely enabled more people to get diagnosed, too.]

Social media is a marketplace of attention with countless competitors. There’s always been a certain “badassness” about angst, and being badass tends to attract attention, so there ya go… 2+2=4. I also think talking about mental illness has become trendy, which is where meme culture comes into play.

A few months back, I wrote a post on self-deprecating memes where I noted a vast uptick in the last couple years of memes so self-aware they border on sad/cringey. In that post, I contemplated where one draws a line between being vulnerable and relatable vs. accepting personality flaws or personal issues and laughing at them rather than working on self-improvement or seeking help. In this same vein, many people use real or self-proclaimed mental illness to deprecate themselves (examples below).

Prescriptive vs. descriptive art

One factor to consider is how we differentiate prescriptions vs. descriptions. This conflict is relevant to other questions, such as whether rap music glorifies drug/gang culture. Some would answer with a resounding yes; just listen to the lyrics! But others would argue this music describes what people have been/go through rather than prescribing that behavior to others. The art we make generally reflects our thoughts, feelings, and experiences (rather than just condoning or condemning things).

Whenever this question arises, the conversation has to be nuanced. With rap music and with uses of mental illness in art, memes, books, TV shows, etc, we have to examine things on a case-by-case basis. Some rap music promotes “thug life,” but some rap music imparts the lack of privileges and decent options that leads one to dangerous lifestyles. Some mental illness depictions romanticize it, but some share the good, bad, and ugly of it and all the unglamorous parts.

Conclusion

Of course, this discussion could go way more in depth, but these are just some of my musings on the topic. To wrap it up, I think there are a few contrasts to consider when asking whether something (in this case, mental illness) is being romanticized or just normalized–prescriptive vs. descriptive art, being honest about it vs. making light of it, showing only the good (or, in this case, “cool”) side vs. all sides. Going off that last one, I wonder if role-playing as a depressed, anxious, bipolar, OCD, etc. person to seem different and edgy is more harmful than helpful to the real victims. This is why I don’t share memes like the ones above. Yes, I have stressors and struggles in life, but I do not have a mental illness, so I’m not going to pretend I do just because it’s trendy.

Also, we should acknowledge the distinction between angst and illness. Though there tends to be a mixing of the two that we should beware of, angst is perfectly normal, especially among young people.

Thanks for reading! Do you feel that mental illness is being romanticized online? What’s your two cents on teen angst, the mixing of angst and illness, prescriptive vs. descriptive art, etc? If you deal with mental illness, what’s your take on others appropriating it for cool points? Let me know in the comments.

19 comments

  1. Good post. There’s not a young person I know these days that isn’t suffering from some kind of mental illness, because in our quest to destigmatize mental health issues we have gone and romanticized the whole notion. Now we have an issue with ordinary angst or even just “feelings” being perceived as symptomatic of a mental disorder. This is also helping to fuel the addiction epidemic because rather than feeling their feelings, people are learning they must medicate their emotions. To some extent we’ve always had these issue, but culture has really gotten on the bandwagon and begun to advocate for some of these harmful notions.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Totally agree with your sentiments, IB. Nice connection you drew to addiction. We need to really discern if we are struggling and just need to face it vs. having an actual chemical imbalance in the brain that needs to be medicated. Thanks for dropping by!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You raise an interesting point! It does seem sometimes that so many are latching onto labels.It’s becoming the “in” thing, a way to call attention to oneself. As one actually diagnosed with depression and PTSD stemming from an abusive past, as well as a suicide survivor, this is an issue that really frustrates me. Because I can say with assurance there is nothing glamorous or cool or meme-worthy about any of it. All that does is cheapen the whole process of sharing, which should be therapeutic, yes, but never about calling attention to oneself. I used to write more on the subject, but as God grows me, I find I have many other things to say as well. But, when I *do* choose to share on the struggles, I write it with transparency, yes, for only in that do I hope to help anyone understand or, better yet, to feel understood. BUT, not from a place of “Look at me. I’m so depressed.” Rather, from a place of “Yes, this hurts, but I am not alone. Not when I have Jesus to shoulder this burden with me. And whatever you are dealing with, you can have that assurance, too.” Not always the most well-received in this society of throw a diagnosis and some meds onto whatever feelings anyone is dealing with, but it’s what He has for me to do. 🙂 Thanks for highlighting this, Lily. A very important topic indeed!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s awesome that you use your struggles with mental illness to point back to Jesus! I try to do that with my physical struggles. I’m so glad we have a prince of peace to cling to so we can spread hope rather than just feeling resentment. Thanks so much for sharing!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent post, Lily. I think angst has always been a theme played on by media, going back to the days of Marlon Brando and James Dean. Perhaps, only as a reflection of the angst we all experience growing up? I know I’ve certainly lived with and have been fueled by a certain amount of angst. The focus on mental health, to me, is newer and fresher. And also a positive step in the right direction. Thoughtful, intriguing post. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As someone who grew up with metal illness in my family I can say that I think it’s sad that a certain amount of metal illness is acceptable. After it reaches that point when it’s not cute I think it’s hard for people who suffer to get help and acceptance. Sometimes it upsets me when I see people I am close with struggle while others treat it like a personality.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing, Autumn. What you said about some seriously struggling with mental illness while others treat it like a personality hits hard! I can see how the romanticization of MI could make it harder for someone whose symptoms go beyond a palatabe point to get help and acceptance.

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  5. Thankyou for sharing my link 🙂 and some really important points and distinctions made! I think that being able to distinguish between basic teenage angst and mental illness is incredibly important, because although they are hugely important, so many people often refer to them as of the same thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve noticed an uptick in acknowledging mental health which is a positive but makes one wonder why. I think previous generations failed to address mental illness that led to substance abuse and suicidal ideation. Particularly, addressing mental health with men is a welcome change since we have been so often taught to suppress those feelings. Being honest about our struggles could and should be helpful. I for one appreciate that I can share even the smallest of struggles without the negative stigma.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good points, Ryan. Thanks for your comment. I agree that it’s a much-needed turning of an old leaf to encourage men to acknowledge and express their emotions! The fact that suicide is more prevalent among men (at least a few years ago–still the case, I think?) illuminates how we’ve tried to force men to constantly wear a shield of strength and resilience, not allowing room for struggles, insecurities, etc.

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  7. Great post Lily!! Love all the thought and detail you’ve noted.
    I volunteer with our jr high youth group at church and we group of leaders have talked so much over this very topic. I would quickly agree that it seems mental illness has become this new “popular” status quo, and if I’m honest I’d say electronics have much to blame for it. People are building relationships through electronics over physically meeting and although electronics can be a blessing they also (often times) work well at sugar coating real feelings; so once these feelings come up teens etc don’t know what to do with them because they don’t get discussed thoroughly so the confused teen then labels themselves with mental disorder, depression, suicidal etc..I could go on and on…sad world for sure. Thanks for bringing this problem to light, more people need to be aware of this truth.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Alicia! Love your input here. I totally see the connection you’re drawing from social media sugar coating real feelings and just being unrealistic, since we tend to share only the highlights of our lives and not the lows, so when people have the REAL bad emotions and struggles and what not, they label themselves with mental illness. Wow! I’m glad y’all are sharing some hard but good truth with your youth group. Whether we do or don’t actually have MI, we will all face real heartbreaks, real pain, real tragedy…but thank God we have Jesus! ♥♥

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes!!!
        Thank God we have Jesus and praying people would open up humbly enough to talk over their issues, to move toward healing and understanding…and peace!!

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  8. I definitely think there are some who romanticize mental illness. For those of us who actually struggle with it though, we can generally tell who’s being “trendy” and who isn’t. It’s like when somebody posts on facebook about how bad their migraine is.

    Until you’ve actually had a true migraine, you don’t understand that the light from a phone is the last thing you would subject yourself to while having one, no matter how bad you want the sympathy!

    Also, when my daughter was diagnosed with Anxiety, I had to teach her that there was a fine line with identifying with it, and letting it identify YOU.

    Mental Illness does not have to be the one thing that people perceive about you. It is a part of a person, like anything else. When treated properly, it can be something to self-deprecatingly joke about. But it doesn’t have to be the only way you project yourself to the outside world or an excuse to not work on coping with all of life’s ups and downs.

    I think the main harm that may come from the romanticism of it in our culture, or the dismissal of it as a joke through the innumerable memes and such, is that people – parents in particular – are more likely to not recognize the signs of mental illness in their children.

    I’ve heard of several parents in my daughter’s peer group that just have a “suck it up” mentality toward their kids that really are struggling.

    It’s a dangerous thing to just chalk up to hormones or social media/Hollywood influence. There are both short term and long term repercussions of not getting true mental illness diagnosed and treated.

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