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Why We Need to Stop Romanticizing Mental Illness

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The mental health space can be difficult for many people to understand. Whether you’re someone struggling, a friend trying to understand, a teacher wondering how to introduce your lesson, a doctor trying to decide on a diagnosis or simply a campaigner trying to reduce stigma, it can be a chasm of chaos.

Romanticization used to be simple. You’d go and watch a play, for example, “Romeo and Juliet.” The suicide scene came on between the two lovers and you knew it was romanticization. But that’s OK, it was expected. It was expected that you would see how overpowered by love Romeo had become and how he could not imagine his life without the “apple of his eye.” But what about when it floods in to real life? What about when we romanticize real suicides from real people?

Mental health issues aren’t a fictional story. They aren’t made up by an author. They are palpable pain and they continuously change lives. So why, as a generation, do we often make them out as fairy stories? Why is Tumblr filled with emaciated young girls wearing flower crowns, laughing, having fun and hashtagged “thinspo” as if the fact that they haven’t eaten a meal in over a week is a positive thing. As if to suggest not eating is the only way to have a happy ending. Panic attacks? Oh yes, everyone wants one of them! They’re so cute, I love feeling so overwhelmed my body shuts down and I feel completely out of control. You stayed up until 5 a.m. writing that essay, I bet you struggle with insomnia, you must be so clever. You’re depressed? Oh wow, that’s hauntingly beautiful. Those cuts are so artistic, I wish I could decorate my body like you.

I hope you read the above paragraph and thought, “How could you say that?” Because I know every time I read a comment like that or a quote on Tumblr or a retweet on Twitter I want to scream you are incredibly fallacious. Romanticization of mental illness is a terrible attempt at making them “beautiful.” I am unsure whether this stemmed from trying to destigmatize mental illness or whether it came from the Tumblr blogs made to connect with people in similar situations. It has created a kind of “sad girls club” that is toxic. Why? Because just like the name suggests — they are illnesses. They hurt and they harm people on a daily basis and I cannot comprehend why anyone would want to portray this lightly. Speaking out about mental health is incredibly brave but also exceedingly difficulty, yet others seem to view it as quirky and an “admirable” personality trait.

By making mental illness out as something “cool” to have, you take the focus away from real people struggling. People who self-harm no longer receive help because their parents view it as a trend rather than a cry for help. Those struggling with bulimia aren’t taken seriously because they can’t wrap their fingers around their wrists. Depressed teenagers are “just trying too hard to fit in,” so their doctor brushes away their concern about having not left their bedroom in over a month. Suicidal students are being turned away by their teacher because who hasn’t tagged a friend in the “I want to die” Facebook meme? People aren’t receiving help because others are portraying mental illness as something lighthearted.

I think where the line of romanticization often becomes a little blurred is within mental health awareness and education. It is often too easy to slip into the trap of “storytelling.” After all, the less “blunt” the article seems, the less likely people are to be put off by reading it. Why is that? Why do we feel we have to buy into writing in flowery language to talk about such a serious topic? It’s probably because people are still uncomfortable. People still don’t know how to handle it and so if we are blunt in our discussions, many switch off. Friends start to disappear, teachers become distant, parents get mad. You can often feel the shift the minute you mention it.

Although we have come a very long way, the stigma still remains. We need to open up the conversation. We need to be less airy-fairy and more blunt. We need to confront it head on, it’s how the issue will change. On the flip side, storytelling isn’t always bad. Poetic pieces can be hauntingly beautiful for people who are really struggling with mental illness — these are the posts that are often more relatable. People who have written from the heart about their struggles; who have’t sugarcoated it or portrayed it as “desirable,” but haven’t been so incredibly blunt that it sounds like they’re talking to a stranger. From experience, these are the articles that help people the most.

A friend once told me that my work was “beautifully harrowing” and was the reason she told her mum about her own struggles because she felt she could use my words to convey her point because before she’d been unsure. It’s a fine line to walk, but it is most helpful to include a resolution. It often opens up conversation more effectively if it’s written creatively but still accurately. Rather than writing poetically about your struggles and leaving it in a pit of despair, write a resolution. Explain things that have helped you or things you want to do to get better. Make it clear that although “X” isn’t great, “Y” can make it better. It is OK to write creatively, as long as it is still honest. This is the line many people will disagree on. Some people will think your creativity is romanticization while others will see it as the harsh reality of day-to-day life put into less “harsh” words. Please don’t let that put you off to writing or talking about it though.

In summary, romanticization is a complex issue. Much of society has formed this ideal that mental illness is “beautiful,” “trendy” and “desirable.” They think it might bring them attention and sympathy and happiness. People don’t always know how to handle mental health and people who are really struggling probably know how isolating of an experience it can be.

You might think people will pity you for your black and white post about self-harm, but most will just become uncomfortable. This can be toxic because it desensitizes the public to the idea, and then you’re less likely to get help. I had people in my life who used to believe I did it for attention. I suppose I did, but for attention in the sense that I needed help — and this was the only way I knew how to reach out. If this is you, please try and communicate in other ways. If someone reaches out after your post and asks if you’re OK, tell them no. Tell them you need help and something needs to change. If you can, speak to a parent or teacher or trusted friend. Write it down, poetically or not, if that makes reaching out easier.

Sadness isn’t beautiful and it doesn’t make you more attractive. No amount of pastel quotes on Instagram or artsy photos of pills on a plate or a gun shooting flowers will alter the fact that mental illness isn’t an art form that you can “perfect.” It is an experience that can make every day painful. Mental illnesses are not an “aesthetic” — they’re tears, trauma and tantrums. They’re therapy, medication, suicidal thoughts and self-destruction. They’re losing all your motivation, losing your friends and family and messing up your education. They are a daily battle that can feel impossible to win. Pain doesn’t equate to pretty. Pain equates to pain.

Please stop invalidating a real illness just because you want to be “on trend.” Please stop contributing to an already toxic stigma.

Stop romanticizing things that hurt the most.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

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Getty image via Ralwel

Originally published: March 15, 2018
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