“You’re never fully dressed without a depression”

This is an analytical feature article I wrote for an assignment during my Masters degree in Cardiff University (MA of Arts in International Journalism – submitted in May 2015)

 

“You’re never fully dressed without a depression”

The glamorization of mental illness

Chain retail company Urban Outfitters is known for their on-trend clothing, accessories and quirky home goods. In 2014, the company received a massive amount of criticism when they came out with a shirt that has ‘depression’ written all over it. The company ended up reducing the price of that shirt from $59.99 to $9.99 as the price they have to pay for portraying a mental disorder as a fashion statement.

Up until today, mental illness is still stigmatized. Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and many more illnesses are seen negatively and it’s rather unlikely for those with mental illness to casually discuss their battle with it. They are associated with personal weakness and most times, seen as a baggage[1].

With that being said, a part of the online world seems to have taken a different route. There are many cases where mental illness is glamorized in different ways. Take the website Tumblr for example. The concept of the website itself is rather simple. People can set up their own blogs, post contents in the form of pictures, audio, text, video, etc., and other bloggers can follow and reblog them (which means repost the contents to their own pages). Many artsy photographs are being posted, but lately, these arts are accompanied with quotes written on them. Sometimes it’s motivational quotes, but often, it’s quotes like “Suicidal people are just angels that just want to go home”.[2] It is portraying suicidal thoughts as something ‘beautiful’ or ‘angelic’, without acknowledging that when suicidal thoughts are present, help is needed.

 

Jelita Ferra is a 13-year-old girl from Jakarta, Indonesia. Much like Britain and the US, teenagers in Jakarta are highly social media oriented. Most of them spend their time out of school hours on their cellphones or laptops. In her case, she mostly browse around the website Tumblr, Instagram and YouTube. When asked about what is the first thing that comes to mind when she hears the word depression, she says “sadness and uncontrollable emotions.” As a 13 year old, she has never had any educational introduction to depression nor has she encountered anything with someone who suffers from depression. She admitted that whatever she associated with the term depression, came from what she saw on the Internet. “I see it a lot on the internet. People on YouTube saying that they have depression or anxiety.”[3]

 

YouTube video bloggers has become the new role figures for teenagers, and a few of them have come out or reveal their battle with anxieties or depressions. British video blogger Zoe Sugg has over 11 million subscribers combined from her 2 YouTube channels. When she posted a video all about her anxiety and panic attacks, which means that she has told over 10 million people from all over the world openly about what she said to be ‘quite a personal thing’ to her. The same also applies for Meghan Rienks, another YouTube blogger from America. She has significantly less number of viewers, but when she opened up about having severe depression, she shared it to 1.5 million audiences of hers. It is important to note that most of their viewers are girls, aged somewhere between 12-20.

From a more positive point of view, it can be somewhat liberating seeing mental illness being less of a taboo subject to talk about. It may inspire those who actually suffer from mental disorders to not hesitate to seek help or to accept themselves with conditions. However, many can also be mislead. Adolescents Ferra’s age, around 13-17 is in search of their identity where they are in the state of confusion. In this phase, they are rather vulnerable, prone to things that will influence their ways of thinking, and ultimately, their identity. During this process, it is also common for adolescents to have someone they massively idolize[4]. They will often copy their idols’ lifestyle, fashion, and even the way they talk. When the video blogger they idolize says that they have a mental disorder, it can easily lead them to also ‘desire’ to have it.

Sarah Hawkinson is a university student in the US majoring in psychology. She also makes YouTube videos where she talks about psychology related topics that draws over 200,000 viewers to active discussions. “As much as I don’t want to say it I think the attention that mental illness brings can be appealing especially to those who are lack attention in their lives.” [5] This is where social media platforms play the role of changing the image of mental illness, from being stigmatized to being glamorized. “Social media can highlight certain horrible features of mental illness such as self harm and make it beautifully aesthetic. So many will look at that and think I want to be that person in the picture.” Said Hawkinson again.

Now this can be dangerous for adolescents. In an interview with Frontline[6], Charles Nelson, the director of the Center for Neurobehavioral Development at the University of Minnesota, says that teenagers are likely to experience mood swings and emotional lability, partly caused by hormonal changes in their body.

 

Mood swings and depression or bipolar disorder are clearly two different things. One is a part of growing up experience that pretty much everyone goes through, and the other is a condition that needs to be treated. The scary part is that teenagers with mood swings are much less likely to be aware of the fact that their constant temper change is a process of growth. When they see their idols suffering from depression, a simple nudge can lead them to self-diagnosing themselves with mental illness. Hawkinson further said that access to internet and social media can be harmful to teens’ mental health because of this reason. “Also people seeing their idols or people they look up to having a mental illness and being so successful makes them think that people can lead glamorous lives and still suffer with mental illness”

In the journey of finding themselves, teenagers often long for acceptance and validation as well. Dr. Mark Reinecke, chief psychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital says in an interview with The Atlantic that the image of being strong and mysterious from having a mental illness can be very tempting for teenagers.[7] Which can further pushes them to believe that they are actually feeling depression, even self-pity that can lead to self-harm.

 

Lack of understanding and education about mental health can lead teens to believe that they have mental disorders. There are tests out on the Internet that can be taken. Simply by filling up questionnaires with their behavioural tendencies, they can get results of whether they do have a medical condition of mental illnesses. When they take these tests to convince themselves that they have got a condition, their answers to these questionnaires can shift with or without them even realizing.

When they are convinced that they have a mental disorder, they are consciously and constantly drowning themselves in the thought of suffering from it. They identify themselves with it. They will then feel a sense of belonging and acceptance into a community who are ‘going through the same thing they are going through’. The whole shared experience is what adolescents are seeking in the first place. [8]

In the last several decades, there has been a slow but consistent increase in depression in teenager, said Dr. Reinecke. Although it can’t be confirmed for sure that the internet and social media takes part in this, there is an evident danger in the glamorization of mental illness, especially towards teenagers and young adults. While the fight against the stigma goes on, it is also important to educate adolescents along the way. It is crucial that they are able to differentiate the prevalent early teenage mood swings and the symptoms of mental illness, because when they successfully convince themselves that they do suffer from an illness, they are likely to actively make themselves suffer, letting emotional roller coaster drag them down. In extreme cases, it may even lead to self-harm.

In spite of safely raising awareness of mental illness, Hawkinson says that highlighting the ugly truth instead of bringing light to the “positive” of it will show people, especially young teens, that it is not something to be desired.

 

[1] Government of Western Australia. Mental Health Commission. Nd.

[2] Waimoesmind.tumblr.com. 17/5/2015

[3] E-mail correspondence. Cardiff – Jakarta. 18/5/2015

[4] PsychCentral. Nd.

[5] E-mail correspondence. Cardiff – USA. 20/5/2015

[6]FRONTLINE. Nd.

[7] The Atlantic. 28/10/2013

[8] Refinery29. 30/10/2013

 

copyright Aria Cindyara – Cardiff University 2015.

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