How digital natives use memes to cope with mental struggle

CW: mental illness, depression, suicide

Summary: Humor is a well-known, effective coping strategy, and it enables to raise awareness of the society about issues that many would rather not speak about, including mental illness. Memes and digital communities around them provide a safe, although not always productive space to deal with depression and anxiety. Nevertheless, the Internet meme culture has contributed to opening up an honest conversation around mental health. This can potentially lead to a better awareness and network of support — one that the preceding generations could not afford to create.


Humor is contagious. When someone’s laughing, it’s kind of viral and it can spread a positive message to the community.

Well, depends on what you’re laughing at.

As an avid consumer of dark humor, particularly absurdist memes that borderline on painfully relatable, I recently found myself in many Facebook and other Internet groups featuring memes related to mental health. I used to spend way too much time on Facebook scrolling through my News Feed, procrastinating over #relatable content that our parents’ generation would rather call just #disturbing.

Many of my friends are involved in sharing and relating to what is dubbed as depression memes. But I also have several friends that suggested the exposure to this “relatable” content is dangerous — not only for your grades, not only for your mental clarity, but also to the societal image of mental illness. So, how and why does this seemingly distressing content become viral? How do we approach the fact that this often extremely insensitive content is used to deal with really sensitive societal issues of our generation?

There are many different ways in which humor is approached by the meme culture, but for the most part, the general principles of offline humor are still applicable. In order to be funny, your content needs to be surprising, which often leads to bordering on the risky or the inappropriate. Humor does not dwell on the positive; conversely, it thrives on negativity, pain and self-deprecation. It offers a collective release from negative emotions that pile up in our brains, through dismissing them in exaggerated absurd.

There is one more thing that fuels the virality of humor, and it is relatability. For a meme to be shared by a lot of people, its meaning must be decodeable for a lot of people. For that reason, these day to day struggles are powerful topics to be depicted, however mundane or painful they really are. Memes regarding serious topics like mental disorders have an increased propensity to become viral, if they are humorous and absurd while referring to the shared experiences of their audience.

Memes related to mental health appear to fit into this convention. The way it is achieved is chiefly through embedding serious themes in light-hearted, absurdist, often campy imagery and text. Most memes of that kind seem to consist of two “layers”: one is positive, but in an ostensibly artificial or childish way, and only serves as an absurdist cover-up for the second layer. The other part is an honest description of personal hardships, and is the actual underlying content of the meme. For example, the image above shows a child in sunglasses (which is crudely pasted from a generic stock image), and the caption compares a state of mental disorder to a broken refrigerator. This kind of humor might give the viewer an ability to temporarily detach themself from their own feelings, therefore increasing a sense of personal agency. But it is open for interpretation whether or not this meme, or any others of that kind, are actually facetious.

Such memes usually describe the daily struggles of people suffering from depression — fatigue, feelings of powerlessness, unhealthy habits such as excessive sleeping, or binge eating. Often, they describe difficulties in interactions with people who don’t have awareness about mental health issues. Sometimes, memes become meta — they refer to the culture of the community that they are born into, and provoke a discussion about the extent to which depression memes are helpful. There is no specific reaction that a depression meme is supposed to invoke in the viewer; it is good as long as it is relatable. However, the reaction is often described as one of “laughing and crying at the same time”, or feeling “personally attacked” by a meme that especially accurately reflects one’s personal circumstance. Memes can spread through stronger ties (among friends) or weaker ties (in Internet groups). Personally, I noticed that most of my exchanges of depression memes happen through Facebook, by tagging between me and my friends on various meme pages and groups. Some of my friends, on the other hand, turned out to follow specific groups or subreddits like /2meirl4meirl.

However, memes should not be analysed merely in terms of the networks they become viral within. As argued by Wendy Chun, a media scholar from MIT, network theory as such fails to identify the social phenomena that occur beyond the nodes and connections of network analysis (2017). The socioeconomic and psychological background of the new generation of Internet users is essential to understanding why these memes became a discernible cultural phenomenon. As much as we can trace who shared what meme with whom, and where certain memes are popular, network analysis gives us a set of correlations that don’t answer the fundamental question: why.

To answer the many questions that the digital culture poses, Chun emphasises habit as a formative factor in the way we use new media. Habits, defined by Chun as “culture turned second nature” seem to determine our day to day decisions and the kind of cultural tropes that become, in memetic terms, dominant or recessive. Our habits, considered collectively, become our habitus. The term was introduced by Pierre Bourdieu to describe our social and cultural habitat. Considering the social condition and the cultural conventions among the youngest cohort of Internet users enables us to better understand the logic of memes.

With consideration of the social and cultural habitat of Generation Z (and to a lesser extent Millenials), the complex aspects of trends in the meme culture becomes more clear. In fact, it is impossible to look at the current developments without consideration to the challenging social and psychological circumstances that the generation born after 1995 falls under. The most prominent (and clichéd) characteristic of it is digital proficiency. This generation, as the first one in history, has had widespread access to computers and the Internet since childhood. Gen Z simply doesn’t remember the time when the it was not possible to communicate instantaneously, when there were no means for instant and free content creation. They also don’t recall the time when they couldn’t instantly find similarly-minded groups of people to have shared experiences with. For Gen Z, this crucial sense of community is to a large extent mediated by the Internet.

But there is a more serious, social undertone to the recent aesthetic of digital culture. Gen Z is likely to be the least mentally stable demographic cohort in history. In recent years, the percentage of youth struggling with anxiety has risen by around 25% within the year 2015, and teenage depression and anxiety have both been at an all-time high (Mojtabai et.al., 2016). The situation is hardly resolved properly given the fact that an estimated 60% of teenagers and young adults struggling with depression do not receive proper help (SAMHSA, 2014). Often the pressure, misunderstanding and stigma around mental illness prevents them from actual recovery. A large number of them live in areas where professional support is not easily available. Some of them simply cannot afford it. In a situation like this, the largely anonymous, free and available Internet communities provide a necessary — and for some, the only possible — refuge.

But the risk with digital humor and explicit detailing of depression and anxiety is that relatable does not necessarily translate to helpful. As much as a shared experience might feel less emotionally exhausting than an isolated one (especially if alleviated with humor), even many fans of the genre perceive it to be a band-aid solution to severe issues. Dismissing or laughing at depression might be helpful for people with relatively low risk of suicide ideation, but for those on the more severe side of the spectrum they might be dangerous. According to Marc Bryant, an Australian media researcher, browsing explicitly depressing or suicidal content can “negatively impact people with suicide ideation”, and be confronting for people who have previously attempted to take their own life. Nevertheless, many forums and subreddits I looked into (for example /2meirl4meirl) actually made it an objective that any person who needs professional crisis help is encouraged to reach out, for example by pinning the suicide hotline on top of the page.

On my way through the depths of the Internet meme culture, I found an interesting other phenomenon — wholesome memes. The literal meaning of wholesome is: “conducive to or suggestive of good health and physical well-being”. Wholesome memes, thus, incorporate the humorous aesthetic of memes in order to show content that is ostensibly not sarcastic, snarky or depressing. They do it often by directly appropriating certain most viral memes (like the one above) and twisting their sarcasm to convey an unexpectedly positive message. The content of wholesome memes is very often related to healthy relationships. The underlying premise of the genre is that unconditional love and friendships do exist, and that attempts at improving your well-being might actually make it better. In the world of memes whose sole purpose was to reveal hard truths about human condition, that level of hope is a novelty — and perhaps, a long-awaited one.

The reason why wholesome memes became so popular recently, in my opinion, is that there’s been a sense of fatigue with depression memes. Although these memes address the topic of mental health — therefore provoking debate on the topic, they often fail to show the possibility of recovery. Their underlying message is “…same”, as opposed to: “it gets better”. Wholesome memes offer comfort that is not based on relatability, but rather on hope.

The exhaustion with depressing aesthetic also forced me to ditch the topic for a while at some point of the research. As much as I don’t mind this kind of humor, and I think it’s one of the ways to break the silence around mental health, depression memes touch upon symptoms and thought patterns that are very familiar to me. It was possible for me to entertain the thought of feeling depressed or anxious — but only for a limited time. For some reason, the kind of content you consume and the community you surround yourself with gets reflected in the quality of your mood. That’s why I decided to limit my exposure to this content to a maximum of 1 hour a day. What has also helped me immensely over the last weeks was completely disabling my News Feed on Facebook, in order to better control the kind of content I consume.

Humor undoubtedly has a propensity to become viral, and dark humor is especially conspicuous in that sense. But the more important, sociological reason why depression memes became popular is they are relatable for a large group of people, many of whom belong to the youngest generation. This generation has been experiencing an epidemic of mental health disorders, and is to some extent relying on the Internet for coping. As much as memes will never be a substitute for professional help, these memes, depending on their contents, might spread invaluable awareness of mental health. It is the Internet that has enabled this conversation to break through the niche, and there is some potential that this discourse might be conducive to more people receiving the help they need.


References:

Chun, W. H. (2017). Updating to remain the rame: habitual new media. S.l.: MIT Press.

“Kill Me”: How Much Harm Are Suicide Memes Really Doing? (2017, October 15). Retrieved December 13, 2017, from http://junkee.com/suicide-memes-internet-mental-health/130928

Mojtabai, R., Olfson, M., & Han, B. (2016). National Trends in the Prevalence and Treatment of Depression in Adolescents and Young Adults. Pediatrics, 138(6). doi:10.1542/peds.2016–1878

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2014). Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of findings. Retrieved from: http://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUHresultsPDFWHTML2013/Web/NSDUHresults2013.pdf