A while back I co-facilitated a focus group for SANE Australia. We gathered some young people together to discuss ways to make online and digital content more accessible and enjoyable. The goal of the focus group was to find out ways for SANE to make mental health content appealing and relevant to young people. And something really interesting came out of the conversation. I probably don’t have to tell you twice, but young people love memes. And it seems we want them involved in our mental health content.
Memes may be perceived as trivialising mental illness. But for many of us, we use them as tools to communicate about our mental health. Memes can be a useful way to tell our friends what is going on with us. It is a light hearted way of saying ‘this is something that I find relatable’ and can help educate people about particular diagnoses. Memes can also be a way of connecting with people who share our diagnosis. For instance, I am a part of several mental illness meme pages that have actually formed extremely supportive online communities. People interact in the comments and share experiences and it can be a really safe and fun way for people to express their experiences.
The tricky thing with memes is that the internet is dark and full of terrors. Who sees and endorses content can’t be controlled. This can lead to some quite awkward situations. I know I have often become frustrated when I have seen memes about Bipolar being misappropriated by people who don’t experience the condition. I remember once I was scrolling through Facebook and I saw a meme about mania that I really related to and wanted to share with my partner. It summed up a key experience for me, in a funny way, and I thought he would get a kick out of it. When I scrolled down to tag him I was confronted by an unsettling sight: all these girls I knew who I knew for a fact didn’t have Bipolar were tagging their friends and saying things like ‘haha us’ or ‘so me’. I found this infuriating. I was thinking ‘this is for me, not you’. Clearly, there is a risk that memes can lead to people self-diagnosing and misunderstanding mental illness.
Another risk associated with mental illness memes is that they can aid rumination. I know for me when I am feeling crap (read: extremely depressed) I can just sit on my phone for hours looking at depression memes. Scroll. Like. Scroll. Like. It is not productive. And whilst there is some comfort in the fact that others are feeling the same the overwhelming sensation is that I am surrounded by negativity and that it will never end. It only serves to make me feel worse.
Despite the ways mental illness memes may be misused I believe they are a valuable tool for young people to communicate and tell stories about our mental health. They are almost a form of social currency in online mental health communities. And the fact of the matter is that they are not going away. Meme culture is huge and isn’t going to slow down any time soon. So it might prove useful for influencers and organisations to consider how they can harness this tool to communicate with and engage young people. The positives of increasing connection and facilitating conversation far outweigh the negatives in my eyes.