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Romanticizing Mental Illness

Teodora Gudea, IX A

A young person’s life isn’t always easy - many teens suffer from severe anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Compounded by school stress, relationship drama and various family pressures, mental health during youth can become a tremendously sensitive subject and a burden on the youngsters’ shoulders. 


However, many more teens don’t actually suffer from issues as such. Sure, managing school, interpersonal relationships and growing responsibilities is challenging, but learning to deal with these struggles and becoming resilient is a part of life. Then, why is it that when you scroll on TikTok or Instagram so many teens seem so, well, sad?


No one ever sees physical illness and thinks: “I want that for myself”, so why is it different with mental health? The reality is that your perception of mental health warps the way you view your own. If it is culturally acceptable to joke about or aestheticize mental issues, it might become an alluring or desirable condition to have. The reality of mental illness ruins lives; it is chaotic, complicated, it strains families, sometimes makes it even impossible to work - it is a lot more complex than a meme or TikTok video can portray. 


Most people feel drawn to such posts because they depict an idealized version of a dire circumstance, allowing them to see the pains of the world through rose-coloured lenses. Nonetheless, this does not only occur in social media, but also in cinematography and television, as well as stories that picture mentally ill characters which “help” us reimagine and work through our mental health struggles. 


Films like “Girl, Interrupted”, “The Virgin Suicides” or “Fight Club” show instances of what it is like living through such conditions and how they impact your perception of the world. Someone going through similar struggles might find it relatable to see part of their story represented on screen. For others, such experiences might offer a new outlook or open a channel for empathy. The problem, though, is that aesthetics will always be at the forefront of how we connect to art. Angelina Jolie and Winona Rider are both stunning Hollywood actresses, and Tyler Durden of “Fight Club” represents a male ideal that some might strive for. This is how the media makes you romanticize mental illness by making it more attractive and desirable than it truly is. 


Think about the lives of some of the world’s most famous artists. For instance, Marylin Monroe was a beautiful movie star and one of the greatest actors of all time. Her struggles with eating disorders, pill addiction and depression are a part of her tragically glamorous story. Culturally, her issues are linked to her iconic status. In public memory, both her beauty and pain are intertwined. 


Vincent Van Gogh follows a similar pattern. We see his genius as inseparable from his mental condition. He spent most of his life painting in obscurity and only after his death did the public learn about his struggles and start associating that with his creativity. The people’s understanding of his masterpieces is tied to Van Gogh’s mental health problems. It endears the public to a story and transforms it into a tragic genius. 


The intersection of mental illness and art is a prime example of romanticisation. We look up to and admire artists, assuming that their issues offer them the unique ability to create magnificent art. This is the reason why so many young artists believe that they must suffer in order to be like the greats, subconsciously wishing mental illnesses upon themselves hoping that this would help them along their career. 


Today, it is no longer artists creating masterpieces that paint a pretty picture of mental problems; it’s everyone who has a camera and an Internet connection.


Before technology, these feelings had no outlet to be aired publicly. Now, they have the opportunity to reach millions of people in an instant, which begs the question: “Is the online discourse surrounding mental health productive or is it distorting the reality of those who struggle daily?” This can surely be destructive, but it also has its benefits.


There has been a positive push towards destigmatizing mental issues, trying to eradicate the shame associated with them. People now seem more willing to discuss their struggles and receive treatment when necessary. The truth is that the topic of mental illness is not black or white and cannot be addressed in such a narrow manner.


The problem with consuming too much mental health-oriented content is that it can often lead to self-diagnosing or identifying with a mental illness which you do not clinically suffer from. Some might feel an average amount of sadness and believe they are depressed, mood swings are explained by bipolar disorder, and difficulty focusing on a specific test turns into ADHD. The genuinely undesirable symptoms are usually left out of these fantasies. With bipolarity comes difficulty in maintaining a stable job or healthy relationships, the reality of ADHD is neither funny nor cute and leaves people feeling overwhelmed by even the smallest daily tasks. When we romanticise mental illness, we undermine the seriousness of certain conditions. 


Like physical health, mental health is something everyone must maintain. Just because you struggle with your mental state does not always mean you are mentally ill. Inflating the two minimizes the suffering someone with a diagnosed mental illness has to go through daily. Romanticising this is a misrepresentation of the whole story. 

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