Features Editor Katharine Swindells analyses the internet phenomenon of the mental illness meme. Long may it live, or should we say… soon may it die?

Donald Duck sits up, bleary-eyed and fearful in bed. The caption: When you hear something go bump in the dark. Then, in the second image, he rolls over, snuggles up and sleeps peacefully. But then you remember you don’t care whether you live or die.

100,000 retweets.

Donald represents a classic example of an iconic growing internet community: that of the mental illness meme. While one side of social media is competing to show off how healthy, smart, thin and social they are, the other is bragging about the steaming mess that is their lives.

Buzzfeed articles titled “55 Memes About Anxiety That Will Make You Say Me” and “19 Pictures That Are Too Real If You Love Dying And Being Dead” light up newsfeeds worldwide and there are whole accounts dedicated to sharing them. Spreading across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and Reddit racking up tens of thousands of likes as they go, it’s clear that mental health memes are far from an isolated phenomenon.

But if you don’t get it, you don’t get it. You show a video to your housemate and try to explain. “You see,” you wheeze through laughter. “The two barbies are holding hands dancing together-” Tears of mirth leak from the corners of your eyes. “And it says, ‘When you and your friend both want to die.’”

But your housemate isn’t laughing. “Wait…why is that funny? That’s awful.”

And therein lies the beauty of internet meme culture. There’s so many of them, and they reach such vast numbers of people, that however niche or obscure the reference there’s guaranteed to be someone else who feels the same. These memes separate their audience into insiders, who share the experience, and outsiders. A community is created through subculture.

But, of course, dark humour is far from a new concept. As long as humans have suffered they have been able to joke about it. When Sigmund Freud wrote on the subject he referred to it as gallows humour, quite literally the jokes made when one is on the brink of death.

Perhaps we are not just using humour to dissuade our own struggle, but actually broaching one of the most damaging taboos our generation faces.

“The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer,” Freud says in his 1927 essay Der Humour. “It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.”

To paraphrase the old man, when we joke about our own suffering we are saying to ourselves that we will not let it get to us.

We can see examples of this in everything. As he bleeds to death from a stab wound Shakespeare’s Mercutio quips: “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.” The condemned in Monty Python’s Life of Brian sing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ as they hang from crucifixes.

Archived letters written home from the trenches of the Western Front show 22-year-old men joking to their mothers, “If I live, I needn’t worry: and – if I die, I CAN’T WORRY!!”

So, when we reach for our iPhone to laugh about anxiety, banter about depression and pun about our own trauma, is this simply the 21st-century reincarnation of gallows humour?

Or is it more than that? In mental illness memes, perhaps we are not just using humour to dissuade our own struggle, but actually broaching one of the most damaging taboos our generation faces.

Shame flourishes in silence. The biggest feeder of mental illness is loneliness, the feeling that no one else knows what you’re going through. It is widely believed that the reason suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK is that oppressive masculinity restricts men from confessing their feelings, while women are more likely to share their problems and create a support network. Put simply, talking helps.

In this thread of the internet the conversation on mental health is being opened up more than any government campaign or primary school lesson plan, allowing people to be honest in a way that’s never been seen before.

“For me, they were a starting point,” says third-year Biology student Niamh Cooper. “Sharing anxiety memes with my housemates is a funny joke, but it was also the ice-breaker to be able to talk about these issues more seriously.”

“We would never have jumped right in with the heavy stuff,” she said. “But for us humour was the beginning of a proper, honest conversation about mental health.”

However there are concerns that these memes may be contributing to the over-normalising of mental illness. One of the key aspects of mental illness is its self-perpetuating invalidation. By their very nature, anxiety and depression tell you you’re not good enough, that your problems aren’t important.

Perhaps by moving mental illness into the mainstream, these memes are exacerbating those beliefs. Creating that idea of everybody feels like this may discourage people from seeking the professional help that they need.

Gracie Marlow, President of Mental Health Matters society, says that although mental health memes can be a good tool, she worries that they may minimise a serious issue, especially when used by people who don’t suffer from mental illness.

“I personally find mental health memes to be quite funny and I often share them with my friends who also struggle with their mental health. They can be a lighthearted way to approach the topic and also provide some laughter which can be lacking when you’re having a bad day,” she said.

“However I find it frustrating when people who do not suffer with mental health problems share them and trivialise important issues,” she continued. “It’s like when the Kardashians say they are ‘having such bad anxiety’, everyone feels anxious at times, but not everyone has anxiety.”

For many, embracing the ludicrousness of your own thoughts is the first step to recovery. Perhaps there’s a beauty in that.

Moreover, many believe that using humour as a coping method can be dangerous, and see these memes as deflecting and making light of a serious issue. The comments on the Buzzfeed articles are riddled with concern. “I recommend anyone feeling this way seek help immediately. I know this was meant to be a joke but a passive death wish can quickly turn to suicidal ideation with a plan pretty quickly,” one reads.

“There’s always going to be that worry,” says Niamh Cooper. “That someone’s using these memes as a way to deal with their issues, when really they should be seeing a doctor or a therapist. Or sharing them as a cry for help, but no one’s taking it seriously.”

But the vast majority of people sharing these memes know that mental health is a serious issue, because it’s one they struggle with themselves. That doesn’t mean they can’t find the humour in it. Part of the key to dealing with anxiety is acknowledging the absurdity. There is power in becoming self-aware – in realising that your fears, of everybody hating you and everything trying to kill you, are ultimately ridiculous. For many, embracing the ludicrousness of your own thoughts is the first step to recovery. Perhaps there’s a beauty in that.

And, in a world full of lonely, socially-crippled losers stuck on a planet that’s spiralling towards total self-destruction – let’s be honest – what can you do but laugh?

Image credit: @aimiekins on Twitter

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