“I’m so sleep-deprived, literally the only thing keeping me running is coffee.”
Most teenagers have either heard others make this claim, or they’ve made a similar one themselves. Open discussion about mental health, especially on social media, is widespread, and many people would consider this a good thing. And it certainly can be. However, dialogue does not always reflect the knowledge needed to accurately debate such a sensitive topic, and this has led to an unwanted sensationalization of mental illness and an overall neglect of self-care.
Part of the issue amounts to exposure. Countless children and teens possess uncensored access to the deepest, darkest parts of the internet. Sites such as Tumblr and Reddit notoriously struggle to control the spread of harmful messages on their platforms.
Discussion of mental illness can help some people dealing with it to feel less alone. Unfortunately, it also normalizes it to an extent where teenagers believe suicidal thoughts, self-loathing, and self-harm aren’t things to be concerned about. Even worse, social media sometimes portrays these actions as beautiful, romantic, and mysterious.
Seemingly harmless posts of memes sometimes exacerbate this. They take symptoms of depression, such as a lack of sleep and a loss of appetite, and make these seem desirable. This is an issue especially for high school students, who often struggle to balance taking care of themselves with their busy schedules. Seeing a lack of self-care normalized in the media has made hearing people boast about pulling all-nighters and forgetting to eat commonplace.
This problem existed before social media, too. Even though speaking openly about mental illness was far more taboo in the past, magazines did advertise harmful, dangerous diets that could easily promote eating disorders. Not only that, but TV shows and films on the subject of mental disorders haven’t portrayed it accurately, causing a lack of real understanding of the topic.
Agnes Costello, MD of Northwestern Medicine states that many TV shows portray therapists and psychologists as cold and unhelpful. This furthers the notion that people struggling with mental illness have nowhere to turn. This can lead to “fatalistic thinking,” she says.
Shows like Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why depict the main character, Hannah Baker, as deciding to kill herself as a form of revenge against the people who wronged her. Not only is this a largely inaccurate portrayal of the causes of suicide, but it is also harmful. Dr. Costello explains that “graphic exposure to another person’s suicide” can negatively impact teenagers who either have or are susceptible to getting mental illnesses, especially because so many of these depictions are heavily romanticized.
Ultimately, it’s crucial to remember that neglecting self-care is not ‘cute.’ It can easily lead to the development of a serious mental issue. Or, sometimes, simply the belief that you have one, which the media often makes seem so desirable. Though social media isn’t exactly a cause of depression, it does worsen it for people who suffer from it, and it can lead unaffected people to think it’s a beautiful and attractive quality. It’s important that people recognise the fault in this, so we can work towards a more united, happier future as a whole.