Though mental illness stigmatization is a bad thing, its opposite — glorification — is just as dangerous. In fact, glorifying mental illness isn’t just harmful; it can be fatal.
As a mentally ill person, I recognize the casual nature with which I used to talk about suicide can be damaging. At the time, I saw it as just casual venting; but looking back, saying things like “I want to die” or “I’m gonna kill myself,” even jokingly, was making me internalize these ideas and struggle worse with my depression. I wasn’t alone in this either, as this is an unhealthy coping mechanism used by many mentally ill people, especially young adults trying to find a way to cope.
Often, mentally ill youth struggle to find an identity beyond their mental illness, leading them to fear that they may be “boring” without severe mental illness symptoms. This harmful mindset can lead those suffering from mental illness to not seek treatment in fear of losing that identity.
Additionally, the trope of suicide as either tragically beautiful or an act of revenge can be a very harmful message to depressed youth. Phrases like “suicidal people are just angels wanting to go home,” posted online glamourize the idea of suicide, and can be internalized by vulnerable people. Related to these depictions of suicide, copycat suicides are a frightening but real phenomenon and can come from real life exposure or through media consumption.
Take for example the show “13 Reasons Why,” which has been critiqued by mental health experts for portraying suicide as a revenge fantasy. After the first season aired, adolescent suicide went up 28.9 percent in the next month. Though correlation isn’t necessarily causation, and there may be other factors, the number of suicides was still higher than any single month in the prior five year period.
Using poor mental health as a relatable way of socializing, though which may be intended to find like-minded people, can be detrimental. Not only can it lead to people accepting things that they need to seek help for as everyday problems, but it also leads to things like brand Twitter accounts co-opting that sense of relatability.
An example of such is back in 2019, when the Twitter account for the drink Sunny D tweeted “I can’t do this anymore.” Several people on Twitter pointed out the morbidity of a brand pretending to have depression, but it’s the natural conclusion of the trend of glamourized, relatable depictions of mental illness.
This isn’t to say mental illness shouldn’t be normalized. Mentally ill people shouldn’t be treated badly for existing, but they should also consider seeking treatment when possible and if necessary instead of dwelling on their symptoms to a dangerous degree. Even if someone can’t find treatment, whether due to costs or social stigma, there are several mental health resources online that can help them deal with symptoms in a healthier way.
At the end of the day, mentally ill people still deserve basic respect and dignity, and that’s not going to change. But enabling harmful symptoms by glorifying them can hurt a mentally ill person just as badly as treating them as a pariah. In this case, it’s important to find a healthy balance.