Beware the Mental Health Meme
This post was specially written for BlogHer’s Social Media and Blogging section, but I thought it worth sharing here too. (Credit for the photo goes to my husband, Dan Reily.)
Most Internet memes are harmless, or even amusing. They proclaim that someone has a wonderful granddaughter or that kittens are cute.
But some memes that travel the world sow unhelpful or even hurtful ideas as they go. The one above appears mild and even inspiring, but to a person with mental illness, it says a lot more than appears on the surface.
The meme that started me on this train of thought was one that invited people to embrace the crazy or enjoy the madness or some such. As a person with mental illness – bipolar disorder – I found the message troubling. The comments were even more so. One said that manic-depressives could at least enjoy the mania.
Admittedly, mania comes with feelings of soaring confidence and a whirlwind of creativity. Mania can also prompt risky behaviors – reckless driving, shoplifting, unsafe or extramarital sex – that can lead to a lifetime of problems, including failed relationships, arrest records, serious debt, and worse. Those are surely the opposite of enjoyable.
But I didn’t know if I was alone in these feelings, so I asked other bipolar bloggers how they react to popular memes. Here’s what they had to say.
Nondescript inspirational memes (of the sort that proclaim daylight follows darkness) seem relatively harmless. Reactions went from “meh” to “a waste of time.” Bipolar blogger Brad Shreve (insightsbipolarbear.com) likens them to affirmations. His research showed that evidence from reputable studies confirms that affirmations mitigate stress. Nevertheless, “I find most of them trite and condescending,” he says. “They just aren’t my thing. I choose meditation.”
Amy Balot, who blogs at madwomanacrossthewater.net, dislikes the sort of memes that tout positivity. “I do have a big problem with the way a lot of ‘motivational’ images seem to imply that all you need to do is think positive thoughts and your life will be hunky-dory,” she says. “It seems to be blaming people for things like depression or anxiety.”
Supposedly positive memes raise the hackles on a number of the bloggers. Dyane Leshin-Harwood, blogger at proudlybipolar.wordpress.com and author of the upcoming memoir Birth of a New Brain, says they range from “cool and empowering” to “[make] me feel guilty that my life isn’t as good as it could
be! It seems like it would bring anyone with bipolar depression down even
It does that to me as well.
Many such memes also promote a “bootstrap” approach to mental illness – which Jim Buchanan, who blogs at mythoughts62.wordpress.com, finds “irritating”: “I feel that this sort of thinking is harmful and it essentially blames the person reading it for their problems by implying that they ‘don’t want to allow themselves’ what is needed for a good life.”
Shreve adds, “Usually these entail [the idea that] the individual can change by doing one thing – [changing] our attitude. As if we could just snap out of depression, mania and more, if we would just put [our] mind to it. I find these guilty of mental health shaming.”
And as for the “find-your-sanity-in nature” meme that began this article? Amy Balot doesn’t care for that type. “I don’t dispute that spending time with animals or outdoors can be great and even therapeutic; but I do dispute the implication that these things are a replacement for therapy or better than therapy,” she says. “It minimizes the struggles of the mentally ill and says they’d be ok if they just took their dogs for more walks in the woods. Not all problems are solved by a little sunshine and fresh air.”
Memes intended to be humorous are a gray area, since humor is so subjective. Personally, I don’t mind being called “crazy,” but many bipolar people do. Using “crazy,” “insane,” or any of the many synonyms – “weird,” “eccentric,” “not normal” – can make people with mental disorders feel as if the meme speaks directly to them, even if that wasn’t intended.
But some people with mental disorders enjoy a gentle poke of fun at themselves. Shreve agrees: “These can be touchy because they could hurt or offend someone who is going through a difficult time, but they help me.” (Here’s one of his favorites: http://www.someecards.com/usercards/viewcard/326b0799dbae216dbe3bf6069e297ea48d).
I must admit that I can sometimes see humor in our situations. I’ve written pieces called “The Lighter Side of Insomnia” and “Confessions of a Crazy Cat Lady.” It’s not a matter of malice being intended; I don’t think people who pass along memes that we consider hurtful are “out to get” those with mental disorders. But that’s the problem: They don’t think before they click “Share.”
So I’m asking: Please think first. One of four Americans will have a mental or mood disorder at some time during their lives. You wouldn’t make fun of someone with a physical illness. Ask yourself: Would this meme still be amusing or inspiring or helpful if you substituted fibromyalgia or diabetes or paraplegia for “mental illness”?
If not, think again.