I grew up with depression by my side like the worst imaginary friend in the world. Depression, anxiety, and overwhelming suicidal rhetoric plagued my brain for almost as long as I can remember. If I could look back objectively, I would conclude that I had depression when I was about 12 years old. Unfortunately, that depression wasn’t addressed until I was almost 18. Most of my adolescence was stolen by mental illness.
I also happened to be in high school from 2011 through 2015, which I believe was a golden age for the romanticization of teenage depression and mental illness. Tumblr—a personal blog site that often romanticized and fetishized mental illness—was at its peak of popularity, season one of American Horror Story was released, featuring a “tragic beauty” main character who smoked, wore all black, and constantly engaged in self-harm, and the movie Cyberbully came out, about a young girl being saved from her depression after learning the hardships of the internet.
The romanticization of mental illness was reflected in the music and media that I consumed in high school and actively made myself and other teenage girls long for the drama and sincerity of a cute, floppy-haired teenage boy understanding our pain. Social media would consume daily normalized depression, anxiety, and eating disorders and made our lives center around them.
Now that I’m long past high school, I see that a lot of my relationships were trauma bonds and—although genuine—pretty unhealthy. Throughout my own journey with my mental illness, I’ve come to understand that none of what I’ve gone through is beautiful, or romantic, or poetic: it’s all been an illness that’s been trying to kill me for over a decade.
Though I believe that we as a collective culture are doing better to destigmatize mental illness and create resources for those struggling, we have not fully eradicated the romanticization of mental illness, especially in teenage girls. This is so dangerous, I truly believe that if my own mental illness wasn’t romanticized by my friends, social media, and myself, I would’ve most likely recognized that there was something wrong far earlier, and I could’ve saved myself years of heartache.
The first step to destroying a social construct is addressing it and starting a conversation; let’s do that.
Mental Illness is Hideous, Not Beautiful
This is blunt, and I’m going to have to go into depth about this, but mental illness is hideous. It’s not beautiful; it’s not poetic, it’s not romantic, it’s a horrible parasite that ultimately wants its victims dead. While it’s true that people with mental illnesses—as all people are—are beautiful, but their mental illness is not what makes them beautiful and is not what makes them who they are. We call mental illness “mental illness” and not “cool mysterious personality traits” because it’s an illness that needs to be treated so the person affected can have a healthy and happy life.
There are two types of mental illnesses that I see romanticized and fetishized the most: Depression and Anorexia. Here are the realities of the two: Depression and Romanticization.
Popular Opinion- Makes people funny and cynical.
Reality- Makes people miserable.
Cynicism can be fun in small doses, but it’s exhausting to live with a mind that is terrified and angry at the world around you.
Popular Opinion- Sexy
Popular Opinion- Happens to young people
Reality- Doesn’t discriminate who it chooses Suicide accounts for 24% of all deaths among 15-24-year-olds and 16% among 25-44 year olds.
Popular Opinion- Happens to women because women are emotional and vulnerable
Reality- Happens to every gender but suicide disproportionately affects men: The mortality rate due to suicide among men is four times the rate among women.
Popular Opinion- Will get better when the person finds love.
Reality- Will get better when treated with medication and therapy Once depression is recognized, help can make a difference for 80% of people who are affected, allowing them to get back to their regular activities. Love does not cure depression just like it doesn’t cure cancer.
Popular Opinion- Just pretty teenage girls suffer from Anorexia
Reality- Anorexia affects women of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities. It is estimated that 1.0% to 4.2% of women have suffered from anorexia in their lifetime.
Popular Opinion- Someone who just really wants to look good
Reality- A real and terrifying mental illness Anorexia has the highest fatality rate of any mental illness.
Popular Opinion- Women with Anorexia have great bodies
Reality- Malnourished and sick bodies that are cold all the time
Popular Opinion-Just needs to eat a hamburger
Reality- Needs treatment Although treatment for anorexia is effective, only 1/3rd of people with anorexia receive treatment
The People Who are Romanticized
When it comes to the fetishization of those with mental illness, not everyone is created equal. People who young and people who are deemed conventionally attractive are the most commonly romanticized. This means that emotional investment for those with mental illness—regardless of how misguided—is only skin deep.
Romanticization of mental illness tends to be reserved for thin, white, able-bodies. The two examples I brought up earlier: American Horror Story and Cyberbully, both stories star a thin white woman as the depressed (but beautiful) protagonist.
When the world is attracted to you, when you’re white and thin and feminine, your depression and mental illness are seen as less of an inconvenience and more of a beauty. This is particularly damaging to men, people of colour, disabled people, and anyone who might not be deemed conventionally attractive. This is frightening because it puts these people at risk, and it shows that societal humanity is shallow and unfeeling.
The Symptoms That Are Acceptable
When romanticizing mental illnesses, people are selective with who they romanticize, but even more so, we as a society are actually particular about what symptoms are acceptable and romantic from those with mental illness. We tend to favour symptoms and behaviour that are detached from ourselves and aesthetically pleasing while condemning behaviours that directly affect us or do not fit into what can be considered beautiful, poetic, or romantic.
Acceptable behaviours that can be romanticized include:
- Quiet and delicate crying (not too loud and no runny nose)
- Self-harm (if you’re a beautiful woman so a man can “kiss your scars”)
- Suicide and suicide attempts
- Rebellious or out-of-character behaviour (especially if it’s sexy like wearing black or smoking)
- Weight loss
- Negative self-talk (so people can tell you you’re actually beautiful)
- Dependence on others (especially men)
Unacceptable behaviours that cannot be romanticized include:
- Loud and uncontrollable crying and panic attacks
- Yelling, being irritable or in a bad mood
- Being lethargic, unable to get out of bed
- Having reality breaks, seeing things, being “crazy”
- Weight gain
- Bad hygiene or self-care
- Self-isolation (especially if you cut off the men in your life)
When we cherry-pick what parts of an illness are acceptable to us or choose which symptoms to be compassionate about, we tell people with mental illnesses that they’re deserving of love and attention as long as their illness doesn’t interfere with us personally. This kind of mentality excludes people with mental illnesses like schizophrenia, BPD, Bipolar disorder, OCD, ADHD, and severe depression and anxiety.
As someone with major depressive disorder, I know firsthand that it is by no means always easy to love and care for someone with a mental illness. It can be emotionally and physically draining and uncomfortable at times. No one should put themselves at risk for the sake of someone else’s illness; however, everyone deserves compassion and love.
Mental Health is Beautiful!
Something that is truly beautiful is mental health! Mental health is romantic, poetic, and beautiful. Getting help for mental illness, feeling comfortable, and being happy are all things in life worth celebrating; people having a good quality of life after getting help should be celebrated.
I agree that depression and the idea of a beautiful tragedy make for good TV, but the storylines should stay on television. I know that someone going to their doctor every month to adjust their Prozac prescription and seeing a therapist every week to talk about their feelings doesn’t really make for a good television show or movie, but it does make for a good life. Take it from someone who’s been the romantic depressed girl and is now recovered, I’m not that sexy, sad girl anymore, but I am alive and happy to be so.