Tung: Not so Funny

Social media posts about mental health can harm those who are struggling.

by Gemma Tung | 1/28/20 12:05am

As I scrolled through TikTok over winter break, I came across multiple videos of people jokingly expressing how much they want to die or how bad their mental health is. There are even song lyrics repeatedly used to create these videos, which seem to rack up hundreds of thousands of views. After seeing this for the first time, I didn’t know how to react. 

On a day-to-day basis, I probably hear the phrase “I want to die” more often than I hear someone ask me how I’m doing. I’ll admit, I have also used that phrase in a non-serious context before. Suicide and depression have become so informal and frequently referenced in our generation that they’ve started to become jokes. 

People have always told jokes about difficult topics like mental health, but social media makes things worse. When we tell jokes to each other face to face, at least we can push back when the jokes are in poor taste. But when memes about depression and suicide go viral on social media, it becomes much more difficult to push back. And once jokes make it to the Internet, it is also much more difficult to control who sees them. Our generation’s informal and humorous attitude toward mental health, particularly on social media, makes it more difficult for those with diagnosed mental health conditions to cope and get better. 

There are people in this world, this state, and probably on this campus who think every day about ending their lives. Those people are most likely not making TikTok videos about how much they want to die. For some people struggling with major depressive disorder, every day is a struggle — the will to live can be a hard thing to come by. If you are one of those people, it can seem callous and dismissive to encounter mental illness and suicide as informal and lighthearted subjects — jokes for people who never have to face the same struggles that you do. 

Just as many would find it inappropriate to joke about the symptoms of someone struggling with cancer, heart conditions, a brain tumor or Alzheimer’s, I find it inappropriate to joke about suicidal ideation.

This is not to say that none of the social media users posting these types of videos are mentally healthy. I am sure that some of them are struggling with mental illnesses. That would make sense — making jokes about your own mental health can serve as a beneficial outlet for those struggling with what can seem like an insurmountable situation. 

I would agree with those who say that, to an extent. But when it comes to broadcasting our jokes far and wide on social media, there’s another factor that outweighs it. When we post jokes about our own mental state in an attempt to make ourselves feel better, it is also important to consider how it might make others struggling with the same issues feel. Others viewing our posts don’t know our history or anything about the context of our own lives. They don’t know if we really are struggling with mental illnesses, just like we as posters know next to nothing about who our viewers are. Given this ambiguity present on social media, it is important not to go too far in assuming that everyone will be okay with viewing what we post. Joking about mental health might work for some people, but for others it just makes things worse. And within the depersonalized world of social media, it’s almost impossible to control who sees our content.

The informality with which our generation portrays mental health on social media can seep into real life and make one’s struggles with mental illness seem less valid and serious than they really are. Mental health can have a presence in social media — a positive one even. Consider social media content featuring people who share their experiences with mental health and dispelling common myths, for instance. However, when we do decide to post about mental health on social media, we must remember the impact we will have on those actively dealing with a problem that can seem too big to fix.

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