By Mae Rogers, Writer
We love the media. TikTok, Instagram, television, YouTube- you name it, we can’t get enough. In fact, 2021 estimates suggest that more than 210 million people worldwide suffer from addiction to social media and the internet. On all sources of media, you can find users that glamorize poor mental health and mental illnesses such as anorexia, depression, anxiety, and ADHD. What may look glossy and pretty on a screen is drastically different than it appears. There is nothing romantic about mental illness in real life.
Within recent years, multiple shows have been released that leave viewers with the idea that mental illness can be gratifying. Take for example, the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, in which the protagonist graphically commits suicide. After her death, she is all anyone can talk or think about. This leaves viewers with the impression that suicide equals popularity; however, the reality is that most people that kill themselves do it for reasons other than attention.
This may seem obvious, but the show glamorizes depression and suicide in such a way that it makes viewers want the same for themselves. In fact, according to the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry the debut of the series followed in a 28.9% spike in suicide rates in children 10-17.
Another instance of this romanticization of mental illness is in the popular HBO drama, Euphoria. The main character, Rue Bennet, struggles with substance abuse and bipolar disorder. Unlike 13 Reasons Why, it portrays some of the less desirable aspects of mental illness, however, some spectators fall prey to the aesthetic of the show. While the series does a good job of showing how mental illness can strain relationships and personal life, it also depicts Rue’s illnesses as something exciting and euphoric, hence the name of the show. Scenes of Rue’s bipolar episodes and drug use are shot with phenomenal cinematography and lively music, leaving the viewer with the aim of seeking out similar excitement.
One student at New Paltz High School commented on the show, saying that the audience “Wishes they could be like them, but meanwhile they’re in rehab.” This goes to show how glamorized mental illness is within television, reaching to a point that spectators wish they were parallel to characters with life-threatening substance abuse issues. While Euphoria may illustrate mental illness as being glitterly and flashy, the reality is chaotic and unpleasant.
Images from left to right: Skins, 13 Reasons Why, Euphoria
Finally, there is a show called Skins, which aired in 2007 and came to a close in 2013. In this series, most of the characters come from broken families and do not have much of a support system. The storyline includes controversial subjects as substance abuse, sexuality, teenage pregnancy, personality and eating disorders, and mental illness. An anonymous student at New Paltz High School remarked that her current struggles with mental illness are partially because of the popular show.
“It literally teaches you how to be anorexic,” she says. According to the Eating Recovery Center, anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents after asthma and obesity. With television shows like these, the number of anorexia cases will only increase. To make matters worse, about 26% of people with eating disorders attempt suicide.
The same student then went on to discuss other sources of glamorization in the media: “There were some people on TikTok, back when being emo and depressed was a big thing, that would talk about their self harm in such a refreshing, enlightening way like: ‘Oh I miss it,’ and they really glamorized cutting yourself. They made it seem so euphoric because it supposedly makes you feel better. People would say ‘I miss the blood trickling down…’ and that made people think, ‘Oh, wow, let me try that.’”
“There were some people on TikTok, back when being emo and depressed was a big thing, that would talk about their self harm in such a refreshing, enlightening way like: ‘Oh I miss it,’ and they really glamorized cutting yourself. They made it seem so euphoric because it supposedly makes you feel better. People would say ‘I miss the blood trickling down…’ and that made people think, ‘Oh, wow, let me try that.’”Anonymous
A third interviewee, a sophomore at New Paltz, noted that TikTok is also a common source of anorexia and bulimia glorification.
“Sometimes you see those ‘thinspo’ videos, those are so bad because that’s, like, glamorizing eating disorders,” she says. “A lot of times you see people comparing their mental illness with other people’s mental illness. Then you wish your mental illness was worse just so it can be validated. You want to be diagnosed so it’s more, like, cool. It’s very competitive no matter what the mental illness is.”
Here is an example of this idea: anorexia victims want to be the “best” anorexic, the anorexic who can eat the least and descend to the lowest weight. Essentially, they strive to be the greatest at starving themselves.
TikTok is not the only social media platform where mental illness is romanticized. In fact, recent headlines regarding “the Facebook whistleblower” reveal that Facebook and Instagram have horrible effects on young girls. The same glorification can also be found on apps like Tumblr and Snapchat as well.
A small school called the University of Balamand investigated the effect that the glamorization and romanticization of mental illness in social media have on mental health. They conducted anonymous interviews with students on campus and some of the replies were shocking.
One interviewee said: “Depression was appealing to me. I exaggerated it on Tumblr, saved many pictures and started sketching depressing drawings. It took a few months before I sought help and got diagnosed and treated for depression.”
In this case, social media was likely a cause of depression for the student. Nevertheless, it is likely that the person did not realize this, as many people who suffer from depression cannot find any sort of source for their disconsolate and miserable feelings.
“In many cases, the individual feels invalidated by this, causing their depressed feelings to grow even further because they feel their initial ones were not good enough,” a fourth anonymous student at New Paltz High School says. “At least that’s how it is for me.”
On the contrary, it is also important to note that social media sets unrealistic expectations. What may look like an effortlessly perfect picture of someone was probably heavily staged. In several studies, young adult users who spend the most time on Instagram, Facebook and other platforms were shown to have a substantially (from 13 to 66 percent) higher rate of reported depression than those who spent the least time.
“In recent years, there has been a significant increase in anxiety and eating disorders in our adolescents,” Mary Kay Fiore, New Paltz High School psychologist, remarks. “I believe that social media can lead to an increase in these conditions, as students are exposed to information on so many different levels. Teens can experience higher levels of anxiety, low-self esteem, and a negative self concept as a result of social media exposure.”
It is crucial to understand that these social networking sites are fake. What may look like a photo of a happy and carefree girl in a bikini could really be a picture of a girl who is struggling with depression and body-image issues.
So, while some platforms cause mental illness by glamorizing it and making it competition, others hide the poor mental health of its users in an attempt to display a perfect world. Unfortunately, mental illness can be brought out in the viewer either way,
“In order to have a healthier relationship with social media, I think students need to understand that there needs to be limits and boundaries in relation to social media usage.”Mary Kay Fiore
“Being connected to others is important for adolescent development. With the recent pandemic, this has never been more important for our teens,.” Fiore says. “In order to have a healthier relationship with social media, I think students need to understand that there needs to be limits and boundaries in relation to social media usage. It is also important to have conversations with parents and trusted adults about the unrealistic messages present on social media.”