Like a joke, if behind every meme is a truth, then there are some memes worth unpacking if we are to better understand our state of affairs.
Wading through the countless SpongeBob, Arthur and Kermit meme formats, a common theme presents itself: mental health. From depression, anxiety, loneliness, exhaustion, and even suicidal ideation, scenes from these cartoons are frequently captioned with irreverent jokes about the very real and painful symptoms of mental illnesses.
Dark humor in memes is nothing special, and in fact quite customary, but there’s a fine line between dark humor and dark humor about mental illness. Memes about racial prejudices or social anxiety, while potentially amusing to some, strike two separate nerves within culture, and context matters.
In 2016, The National Institute of Health reported that 16.2M American adults — most prevalently, 18 to 25-year-olds — had had at least one major depressive episode. A year later, the nonprofit Mental Health America found that 64% of young Americans with major depression received no treatment. And it’s worth mentioning that these numbers are only rising. According to a study by Ramin Mojtabai, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the odds of adolescents suffering from clinical depression grew by 37% between 2005 and 2014 with suicide rates increasing 20% over the last 20 years (CDC). Today according to The National Alliance of Mental Health, 1 in 5 Americans suffer from mental illness… that’s 43,800,000 people a year.
With the pervasiveness of mental illness in mind, we can begin to comprehend the ubiquity of mental health memes online. They serve three key purposes…
First, it allows the original poster to share an unpleasant thought or feeling without the stigma that comes along with it. In other words, “SpongeBob is saying it, not me.” This offloads the burden of the original poster and treats the meme as a vehicle of expression for such heavy material.
Second, the subject of these memes are often childhood cartoons: inherently innocent and friendly characters. These light hearted characters, which many are already comfortable with, easily mask the grave nature of what’s actually being said.
And third, power in numbers grants the comfort of not being alone. When one of these memes is liked, retweeted or upvoted, the original poster is no longer alone. The meme, like a collective thought bubble, now speaks on behalf of all of “us”. When dealing with such taboo topics, it’s safer to talk about these matters in mass, and engaging with the meme is a way to say, “I feel this too. I’m here.” Similar to the first point, it’s not just “me” saying it, it’s the character and everyone who engages with it who are saying it.
As mental illness statistics rise and the illnesses themselves go untreated — let alone, undiagnosed — we need to understand the value of these memes which are playing such a significant role in how we’re communicating and expressing our thoughts.
Optimistically, these memes de-stigmatize mental health by raising awareness and shifting perceptions. Linking the unfavorable symptoms of mental illness with more palatable characters makes for easier transmission. For this we owe thanks to SpongeBob and Arthur’s animators for their unexpected role in helping us address mental health more effectively. More so, those currently suffering from mental illness may find relief by utilizing these memes. Our collaborative drive and creative ability to reappropriate or personally utilize these cartoons speak to our complex wiring and the power of our networked society.
Yet, there are concerns more worthy of consideration.
For starters, while we may be de-stigmatizing mental illness, we may also be normalizing the subject to a problematic degree. In The Atlantic’s piece entitled, “Social Media Is Redefining ‘Depression’”, the term “wannabe depressed” was first established in 2013, the same year suicide was named the 10th leading cause of death among young adults (The National Alliance on Mental Health). When mental health and its memes reach omnipresence, depression trends — and those on the outside, want to be in. Dr. Stan Kutcher, an adolescent psychiatry expert reveals he’s witnessed a trend of romanticized depression, “I see that on lots of social media.” When mental illness becomes fetishized, its significance becomes trivialized, and we regress to where we once started — not giving the topic the appropriate attention it deserves. We must not minimize the pain which those are suffering from by merely mentioning the subject.
Separate from the in vogue status of mental health, we must note: talking about it is not the same as acting upon it. The scarcity of those seeking treatment is glaring. And although culture may be more willing to accept mental illness, nothing is then seemingly done to address these symptoms. On the one hand, we’re on the right track by talking openly, but these memes aren’t encouraging anyone to seek the help if they are actually in need. But is this even a meme’s responsibility? Who then picks up the role of finishing this delicate discussion? We’ve birthed a critical conversation with no one to lead it. Or in more blunt terms, we’re celebrating an epidemic without solving it… but naively thinking we are.
The irony in these memes is two-fold: the media used to address mental illness is compounding the problem, bringing over-exposure to the issue without adequately dealing with it. And secondly, social media platforms, being notorious breeding grounds for addiction, envy, and bullying, are where these memes are posted, but exacerbating these feelings being shared.
While questions remain unanswered, we can certainly fathom the insurmountable power which frivolous memes yield in culture today… especially those using SpongeBob to broadcast our most intimate experiences with mental health to the entire world.
Matt Klein is a cultural theorist and strategist analyzing the psychosocial implications of our technology to consult on business decisions.