Whether you love them or hate them, it’s seemingly impossible to escape memes. Now almost as much a part of our online vernacular as emojis, memes are everywhere – on Facebook, on Instagram, and even brands have tried to get in on the action (often missing the mark, however). On any given day, I see WAY more memes on my Facebook feed than I do posts by friends or family members – and I don’t think I’m alone. Some universities have even started including memes in their social media posts in an effort to increase student engagement … and it’s working.
Social media and memes have both been around for years, but continue to grow in popularity.
While memes aren’t a new concept, their continually increasing cache is surprising – especially as the average attention span is dropping, particularly among Gen Z users, who have spent their entire lives online.
While memes are usually centred around fleeting cultural moments – for example, Yodel Kid – they’ve also gained traction as a way to talk about serious issues, perhaps because memes are often designed to be widely relatable. Dazed Magazine notes that rather than being a personal endeavour, memes are by nature collective – they’re known largely for their ability to spread from person to person. Because we can all relate to a lot of memes, that inherently makes them less personal – sure, you might be feeling frustrated and stressed about uni, but so are the other 48000 people who liked the same meme.
The feeling that memes aren’t really about you personally, no matter how relatable you find them, is increased by the fact that they’re generally written in third person. This is important, as it creates space between ourselves and memes, thus allowing us to present opinions or feelings we wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable typing directly into Facebook and posting. After all, isn’t it easier to just like or share a picture of Confused Maths Lady, overlaid with some relevant text? On Instagram, the usual meme caption will be bemoaning the relatability of the content – “big mood”, “relatable” and the simple “me af” are all incredibly popular.
Although most memes remain light, funny, and often self-deprecating, the overall tone of meme culture has been changing. In recent times, a swathe of Instagram accounts such as @scariest_bug_ever, @meme.queen.satan, and @memesforvalidation have come to represent a new trend: memes about mental health – or more accurately, mental illness. The unapologetic, honest creators often centre their memes around topics such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders – and the loneliness that comes with them. There are even memes about creating mental illness memes. If it sounds weird in theory, it shouldn’t – after all, isn’t it human nature to want to feel understood? Or at the very least, to not feel entirely alone? It’s comforting to know that you’re not the only one who’s ever used unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with feeling overwhelmed by life.
Despite memes being thought of as something meant for a quick laugh – the fast food of humour, essentially – past political and cultural memes show that the humour is often more subversive and complex than it initially appears. Mental health memes also fall into this category, with writer Una Dabiero describing them as “memes that might even make you forget your illness is sad for a second and think its almost kinda funny your brain hates you so much”.
With countless mental health meme accounts active on Instagram – many with thousands of followers – the community provides a place for users to find content they relate to, no matter how dark. The creators themselves are usually mirror images of their followers: millennials with mental health struggles, trying to deal with things the best they can. Owner of popular meme account @snakelively commented that she felt that “[her] overwhelmingly specific memes make an easy connection from one mentally ill person to another … making memes allowed [her] to discuss [her] experiences with mental illness”.
But why do people find these memes so relatable? Why are so many of us desperate for a communicative outlet to address mental health problems? Oversharing is now common practice in online communications, particularly on sites such as Instagram and Tumblr where users can post without using their real names. American academic Russell Belk suggests that our penchant for oversharing is in some ways just a product of the environment – after all, we’re constantly being asked to define ourselves online. How do you feel? What’s on your mind? Which combination of clever sentences best suits your Instagram bio? It’s easy to see how thousands of minute choices, played out over a lifetime, would eventually deeply alter the way we communicate.
In addition, we often look to social media to “collaborate and receive confirmation of our feelings” – in this way, ‘liking’ a mental health meme on Instagram is simply a variant of looking in a mirror: a confirmation of something we already knew. We will passively interact with the memes we relate to or agree with online, thereby increasing visibility and lifespan. And from this, we get the satisfaction of being understood without needing to feel vulnerable in the same way we would if we shared a mental health-themed status update on Facebook.
Online realm aside, there’s more at play than just our willingness to overshare. There’s no shortage of commentary on millennials and our relationship with mental health: it’s well-documented that we’re more prone to anxiety, depression, and general unhappiness than previous generations. With suicide the leading cause of death among young people, and 1 in 4 are at risk of serious mental illness – it’s clear that there’s an issue.
While the ability to discuss mental illness is undeniably a good thing, some users feel concerned that mental illness memes encourage passivity in the face of poor mental health: for example, many memes joke about choosing to retreat online instead of taking positive steps like opening the curtains or getting dressed. Although some memes address that this is problematic, many don’t – which may potentially encourage young users to simply accept their mental illness as ‘normal’ instead of seeking help.
Ultimately, mental illness memes are simply a reflection of our environment: an age where rates of mental illness are staggeringly high, and it’s simultaneously easier to access niche content than ever before. Because of this, it’s hardly surprising that these memes have found such a strong foothold within the online community. In an atmosphere which promotes oversharing and minimises personal responsibility for it, mental illness memes can act as a catalyst for serious conversations about something worthy of discussion. It’s no secret that mental illness thrives in shame and silence, and if anyone’s feelings of isolation and embarrassment are decreased by hitting ‘like’ on a Scooby Doo screencap, then that’s a good thing. However, are nice as it can be to feel understood, mental illness memes won’t ultimately fix anything – reaching out for help is always the best decision.