Talk about it. The responsibility is on you.
Talk about it. So we can shift the blame.
Talk about it. An easy retweet that helps my guilt.
Talk about it. But only if you fit the ‘right’ image.
Talk about it. But only if it won’t make people uncomfortable.
Talk about it. But only if you’re willing to show you’re trying.
Talk about it. Once you’re recovering.
Talk about it. Make sure there’s a catchy hashtag.
Talk about it. As long as you’re white, straight, and middle class.
Talk about it. But not too much, you’re just attention seeking.
The Internet has done wonderful things for mental health awareness, so many of us have found outlets and conversations and groups and people and support for things we never would have dreamed discussing with our real life friends and family. For many of us it’s been a starting block that’s meant we can talk about things with our friends and family. The Internet has made an awful lot of people feel a lot less insane.
But it’s not always a positive, even when it’s claiming to be.
At first glance the communities we are now part of online look to be supportive, encouraging, and understanding. But underneath it’s not always as accepting as it seems. There’s a very specific type of mental illness that is openly accepted on social media, you have to fit the guidelines and remain Insta-pretty otherwise I’m sorry you just don’t fit in here.
Depression and anxiety have become the socially acceptable mental illnesses to struggle with, they’re seemingly understood and accepted. There has been criticism of social media and mental health and the idea that having mild depression or anxiety has become something of a fashion statement or a badge of honour. This is said to dismiss the seeming rise of mental health issues (more people talking about it doesn’t correlate as more people suffering), to imply that people are wallowing in, exaggerating, or even making up their struggles with mental illness. However, I think that we can also see these ‘trends’ as a positive. If there’s a trend to discuss mental health, that can’t be a bad thing. If people are being allowed the space and the acceptance to discuss their mental illness then great. But we have to be aware to what mental illness is being discussed before we label social media as supportive of mental illness.
There is no ‘trend’ to discuss OCD or bipolar disorder or PTSD or personality disorders – while a large part of this is of course that they are illnesses that are diagnosed at a much lower rate, I think it’s important to note that these illnesses just aren’t as understood and accepted in the same way. I have had countless messages from women who suffer with these mental illnesses, and many others, who don’t feel like there is support for them, who feel shamed and embarrassed and like they need to hide away. That’s not what happens in a place that is supportive of mental illness.
And even the ‘accepted’ mental illness still have to fit a very specific box. If you’re going to talk about it be positive for goodness sake, be healed (or at least very obviously trying to heal, have you tried yoga? Avo on toast? That spotty jumpsuit from M&S?), have the symptoms that don’t make anybody feel uncomfortable, create a hashtag, put on your lipstick, be present, be busy, be part of it, be pretty, be white, be rich enough to heal yourself without benefits…
My mental illness is far from pretty at it’s worst. I’m not able to keep up with brand partnerships and writing interesting, 1000 word blogs on Lego. I’m not able to open my emails, or reply to DMs. I’m not able to shower. I’m not able to cook or clean or do the very simple tasks that parenting requires. I’m not able to present myself in a way that’s Insta-acceptable, I can’t string together words to inspire and include. I can’t take beautiful photos. I can’t keep up the friendships and relationships across the app. So that means the support isn’t there in the way it looks like it might be for other people, I don’t get sent lovely gift baskets from lovely ladies because I’m feeling blue. Because when I’m feeling blue, or grey, or completely black, I’m not somebody you want to associate with.
I was signed up for a podcast all about mental health before I took a break from Instagram. Many of the big Instamums have been on there, they’ve spoken about PND, anxiety, traumatic births the ways they’ve coped since children. I had listened to a lot of the episodes and more than a couple of things that were said made me a little bit uncomfortable, there was an overwhelming feeling of privilege. I was excited to go on and talk from a different perspective, and hopefully show that there are many more aspects that need to be considered when offering a soapbox to talk about mental health, to bring a story that doesn’t begin with marriage and six figure salaries. I emailed them to say I wasn’t going to make the arranged time because my mental health was in a bad place. They never responded. That’s not what happens in a place that is supportive of mental illness. That’s a place capitalising off of mental illness.
This probably sounds like a bitch and a moan that I don’t get things or that having struggles with my mental health have negatively effected some very privileged work. That’s not my intention. There is a huge amount of emphasis recently on needing to ‘talk about it’ and the perceived support you can receive from social media and I think it can be genuinely dangerous.
When the news broke about Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain social media was spilling over with well-meaning messages encouraging you to ‘speak out’ if you’re feeling suicidal. And yes, in the perfect world this would be the solution. But there are so many reasons this is a problematic message to be putting out there. Firstly, because for many, many people their mental illness doesn’t allow them to open up and speak out, because their own brain is telling them nobody cares, you’ll simply be a burden, you’ll be putting your problems on them. It puts the full responsibility on the person suffering to be the only person who can help themselves. We need to be recognising issues within our friends, we need to notice when their behaviour changes, we need to understand all the warning signs of suicidal thoughts and not just expect them to come to us. And as I have discussed in detail above, the Internet is presented as a way for everybody to speak out all the time, and with that comes the expectation that now everybody can find somewhere and some way to share. But nobody owes anybody their story, nobody has to share their life with a social media app. Especially because there is absolutely no guarantee that you will be understood, accepted, and helped. And it is also of course very important to note that 99% of people who discuss mental illness online (myself included) have absolutely no training to be able to help others with their own mental health issues. I am very conscious of never advising people who message me with what I think can help – other than telling them to speak to a health professional. I don’t always have the time to respond to people’s very emotional messages, I don’t always have the emotional strength either. Pushing people to open up to strangers on social media over health professionals isn’t a safe or sensible option, self-diagnosis via Google isn’t the same as a professional diagnosis. The Internet can offer wonderful support, but it cannot be the only support.
This may all read as a garbled, nonsense stream of consciousness. Which sums up my entire writing repertoire really…
But I feel we need to be more careful about what we shout about being a mental health-positive space. While we should be so proud that the conversation has opened up so much, there is still a very long way to go. If we want to be accepting and understanding of mental illness we have to recognise that it’s not always Instagram-filtered, hashtagged, and inspiring. Sometimes (more often than not in fact) it’s messy, uncomfortable, scary, and really fucking awful. It’s easy to feel like you’re doing mental illness ‘wrong’ if you’re in the latter grouping, it can feel like you don’t fit in anywhere, that you’re much more broken in a much worse way. But let me take this moment to tell you, you are so not alone. Not being able to afford wellness retreats doesn’t mean you’re not trying, not putting on a floral dress and some bright red lipstick doesn’t mean your mental illness looks wrong, not being sent ‘pick-me-up’ gifts from friends and brands doesn’t mean nobody cares.
We’re being fed one very specific image of mental illness. It’s white, middle class, quiet, noninvasive, not scary, gentle, well-dressed, straight, and female. We’re demanding diversity in our advertising, we need to demand diversity in the way we see reality. It doesn’t get much more real than mental illness, unless you’re looking at Instagram…
Mental illness often makes you feel like you are on the outside of society, sometimes the way mental illness is presented on social media only makes you even further outside. If you don’t feel represented in what you see online that in no way makes you weird or unaccepted, it’s just another minority being ignored for the comfortable, easy, norm. There are always a thousand other people feeling the exact way you do, it’s just a little harder to find them.
And as for brands who are making money off of presenting themselves as mental health-inclusive, but fail to offer any kind of diversity across the mental illness they discuss, and have no support when the people they work with become mentally unwell – they can fuck right off.