In the last few decades massive steps have been taken to remove the stigma around mental health and promote engagement in conversations about these issues. However, with mental health becoming so topical there has been a new phenomena where the issues of mental illnesses are portrayed in a dangerous way that creates a discourse that is far from the truth. It is referred to as glamourising by researchers and clinicians, and is a growing problem within our society.
To gain a better insight into the negative impact caused by glamourising mental health, I spoke with Dr. Mou Sultana, who, originally from India, now practises as a Chartered Psychologist and Psychotherapist in Ireland.
She explains that glamorising mental health involves romanticising mental illnesses, oversimplifying them and making them seem exciting attributes to have, as well as identities to hide behind. Adding undue values to mental illnesses makes them desirable accessories to possess to make one seem cool.
This process involves glorifying serious conditions like depression, anxiety, and promoting self harm, suicide, eating disorders and OCD. It also includes promoting violence and abuse related to antisocial personality disorders, and paraphiliac disorders like sadism, masochism and exhibitionism as desirable.
What are the negative impacts of glamourising mental health?
Dr Sultana: Glamourising is the opposite end of the spectrum from normalising. But glamourising is also a result of oversimplification, over normalising, and it is a darker side of empowerment.
So on one hand, attempting to normalise mental illnesses helps the process of destigmatisation, helps fight social exclusion and creates a sense of empowerment.
But on the other hand, if the process of normalisation involves glorification, so much so that it encourages people to not seek help, give into the symptoms of anxiety and depression or to fight the feelings of what is natural and as part of healthy living, then there lies a danger.
We are encouraging psychopathic tendencies, perverse enjoyment and in some cases it may lead to the spectrum of psychosis. Taking emotional well-being and independence to an extreme level of normalisation is not empowerment. It is a process that can make us less emphatic, more selfish and create more complex and severe mental illness than we already may have.
Why do you find it important to highlight the issues caused by glamourising mental health?
Dr Sultana: As Covid-19 has taught us, as a society we are becoming more dependent on digital platforms and social media. For some of us social media is becoming our main source of news, and Netflix is becoming our main source of entertainment.
It is essential that we pay attention to the posts we like, the pages we become members of, the motivational quotes we abide by and the characters we tend to romanticise from the movies we watch on Netflix. I think it is necessary to be aware of our choices and mindful of our limits.
Limit is a keyword here in this discussion because we as a society, and especially as some subgroups of the society, have forgotten our limits. Our intention to help has gone to the extreme end where we glamorise mental health and are making matters worse. We are contributing to the making of newer pathologies.
Do you think that having a mental illness has become ‘trendy’ ?
Dr Sultana: Yes. From reviewing the current literature on the phenomena of glamourising mental illness (Jadayel and Medlej 2017; Smith 2018; Tanner 2015) it seems that neither of the above questions have occurred to the people promoting such discourse. Perhaps, they have mastered an art of muting the voices of their conscience.
I am referring to the secret hashtags on twitter that promote self harming, eating disorders and suicide; the Instagram pages that promote anorexia, and the social influencers who make money out of selling merchandise like ‘my anxieties have anxieties’.
Do you believe that being sad, anxious or depressed is somewhat popular on social media and online?
Dr Sultana: Yes. We as a society have a habit of taking things to extremes. So from stigmatising someone who has a diagnosis of depression we have gone to the other end, we now glorify them.
Having Dr. Google at our fingertips we have forgotten our limits to knowledge. With ease of access to what others think about us, we have become addicted to deriving instant knowledge of ourselves in terms of likes, shares and followers. An instant gratification that is deadly addictive.
We don’t have to question our actions online anymore, because it is easy to be anonymous and not be accountable. We have also grown a habit of weaponizing and monetizing anything and everything that makes us seem more desirable and makes us popular online.
We are more focused on our instant gratification of receiving ‘likes’, feeding into our narcissistic needs to be validated and desired by others. We become less bothered about what discourse we are contributing to by glamourising mental illness. Thinking about only myself. This process fosters narcissism, feeds into a pathological need to be desired and promotes a culture that is simply dangerous and recklessly selfish.
What is the impact of using phrases like ‘I’m depressed’ or ‘This gives me anxiety’ carelessly?
Dr Sultana: We follow a checklist based statistical manual when it comes to diagnosing mental illnesses but one size does not fit all. The experiences of illnesses like depression and anxiety are different for different people. Thumping them all in the same category and making them part of our daily life is dangerous.
Phrases such as the above, add to a discourse where mental illnesses become something else. A complex phenomena becomes dangerously simplified as people begin to use the disorders’ names as common language, phrases to connect with peers/like minded people. By doing this they are completely ignoring the individualities and complexities of these mental illnesses.
These terms then become a part of our general discourse, a label to bond over, a ready-made identity to hide behind.
There can be different types of diagnosis made with different specifiers of depression and anxiety. To use these terms in casual sentences to look ‘cool’, print them on merchandise or upload them as social media posts seeking likes, shares and followers — that is simply wrong to say the least!
What in your opinion has made people associate mental health with a personality trait (sometimes even a desirable one) and what are the dangers of that ?
Dr Sultana: For centuries humans have pushed the limits, tested the boundaries and hence we have progressed as a society. We’ve created technologies, sent man to the moon, found a vaccine for Covid 19 and are planning to live on Mars.
From a psychological perspective, pushing the limits are good identifiers for growth. However, pushing the limits to the extreme, where boundaries between reality and fantasy or falsehood become blurred, is dangerous, counterproductive and is a pathology on its own.
The danger is that we have begun to romanticise these traits in movies and TV series. Sometimes referring to intimate partner violence or anger issues as ‘masculine’ or ‘passionate’. Think of Fifty Shades of Grey! The DSM-5 still has sexual sadism disorder as a paraphilic disorder and Mr. Grey is not too far from the criteria.
Anorexia and bulimia are being promoted as thin-spiration on instagram and twitter, when it is far more complex than what it seems and we do not talk about the fact that it has an element of control in its aetiology.
Instead, we normalise self harming with slogans like ‘you have a right to control and hurt me, but I don’t have a right to do the same to myself?’. Moreover, the size zero obsession has not evaporated from the silver screen or social media, in fact ‘filters’ have made it more easy to achieve.
What is your advice on fighting the glamorisation of mental health ?
Dr Sultana: Depression and anxiety are part of the human experience. We all need a bit of introspection, the ability to feel genuine remorse and make reparation. Feelings of guilt and shame are necessary qualities for us to be different from psychopaths (a colloquial term emerged in social media and not a diagnosis).
Feeling empathy for others, mourning and experiencing grief are key qualities that differentiate us from those who we identify as ‘psychopaths’.
Similarly, stress is a normal human reaction. It is our body and mind’s response to demands. Anxiety can be conceptualised as a response to stress but in the case of anxiety, the stressors are unknown to the person. We all need to have some sense of stress response and some level of anxiety on a day to day basis.
So striking a balance in between, especially when promoting mental health talk is an art and science that requires specialist knowledge and precision. And yet, we talk about mental health these days as baking your own bread. In fact, we pay more attention to detail when reading a recipe to bake your own bread than we do for mental health.
My advice would be to not take mental health advice from someone who is not a mental health professional. You wouldn’t let someone take your appendix out just because they were a patient once and had their appendix removed by a surgeon. So don’t take advice from a survivor. Inform yourself with their experiences, but don’t let their experiences be your guide to your own mental health.
Mental health has always been a difficult topic to approach. In recent years, the stigma surrounding mental illnesses has been somewhat lifted but we now see people using terms from mental illnesses carelessly. We see people hiding behind the identity of a mental illness they may not have, and we see others trying to profit by selling merchandise that promotes glorifying mental health. We see romanticised storylines and characters that often portray mental illnesses in a way that is far from the truth.
Striking the right balance is key but it is very difficult to do without in-depth knowledge of the subject. As Dr. Mou Sultana said, it is best to listen to advice from a professional. As for the rest of us, it is perhaps best to avoid trying to preach on things we don’t necessarily understand and avoid using mental health terms in casual conversations as they can reflect the mental illnesses in a distorted way.