Stop Making Mental Illness A Personality Trait, It’s Only Making Things Worse

If someone asked you to describe your personality, would you include an assessment of your mental health?

By Andrea Mew6 min read
Pexels/cottonbro studio

Back in my teenage Tumblr days, many of my peers microblogged as an outlet to vent their darkest emotions. Perhaps there was something cathartic about how these thoughts, usually bottled up or journaled out onto physical paper, were posted online as public declarations of problems. After all, the art of boiling down what’s bothering you and translating that into concrete thoughts outside of your own mind is an integral part of the healing process. 

This practice of oversharing mental health struggles with a community of literal strangers around the world – from daddy issues to dating issues – has been seen time and time again on social media. What happened on Tumblr was no different from what girls did on Myspace several years before, showing off emaciated waists or thin scars on wrists, not only to feel a sense of closeness among peers but also to gain clout, whether intentional or not.

Tumblr wasn’t the last platform where we’d see this phenomenon take place right before our eyes, though. In recent years, TikTok users have documented very real experiences struggling with their mental health. Having said that, users have also appropriated illness to build a following and achieve validation through virality. This deliberately attention-seeking behavior has caused many to wrongfully aestheticize depression and eroticize anxiety. 

When Did Poor Health Become a Source of Pride?

Some may say that an increase in dialogue about mental illness is meant for awareness – to reduce stigma and hopefully get people discussing viable solutions for our worsening mental health epidemic – but even if there are good intentions at play, glamorizing emotional instability clearly isn’t helping the cause.

Every bump or scrape you receive, every tummy ache you feel, and just about every symptom that causes you some amount of distress beyond your normal functioning (if there even is a definitive answer to what “normal functioning” may be) has been medicalized by the cult of scientism. People are quick to adopt labels that physicians and psychiatrists slap on their struggles. This could be a momentary health issue, like an irregular heartbeat from a period of time when you’re experiencing heightened stress, diagnosed as a heart arrhythmia for which you’re prescribed daily blood thinners that make your periods heavier, make you dizzy and weak, or even cause you to lose bone strength. 

Then, your symptoms, which may have just been a temporary part of your experience, have rendered you a chronic customer of Big Pharma to treat your so-called lifelong ailment. Of course, there are plenty of genuine chronic illnesses which people do need indefinite treatment for; for that reason, we’re blessed to have modern medicine. 

But, I’d wager that, in many cases, people experiencing temporary distress, that could be reduced through lifestyle changes, then cling to their diagnosis as an excuse rather than a means to overcome their struggles. Emblematic of this phenomenon is the difference between major depressive disorder, a debilitating mental illness, and bouts of depressive moods. The latter can indeed be debilitating and make daily living quite difficult, but it’s trivializing to people with really serious chemical and hormonal imbalances to conflate the two. 

Stigma Reduction Backfires When Normal Emotions Become Diagnosable

Darby Saxbe, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, penned a guest essay for The New York Times scrutinizing the post-pandemic strategy for policymakers and professionals to make mental health resources more accessible for young people online. He called it well-intentioned, since there’s a bit of a barrier to entry for traditional therapy. Beyond high costs, proper education on anxiety, depression, and suicidality can take a lot of time. 

So why isn’t this clinical psychologist giving his seal of approval to the Harvard School of Public Health’s TikTok videos? Saxbe found that these rudimentary “programs” backfired and, in some cases, made mental health issues worse.

One such program was a British school-based mindfulness program that was intended to teach social-emotional-behavioral self-regulation to preventatively reduce the risk of mental ill-health. When studied in over 80 schools, the program was actually found to have lowered the teenagers’ mindfulness skills and worsened their emotional problems.

Saxbe pointed out that this result was not unique; researchers came to similar conclusions in an Australian study of 2,500 teens. Why might this have been the case? Saxbe agreed with the researchers that the teenagers were not getting deep enough engagement and there wasn’t enough of an emphasis on mastery of skills. After all, being thrown a litany of tools hypothetically makes a person a jack of all trades, but definitely a master of none. Saxbe also provided three more reasons for why these abbreviated, baseline interventions backfired.

First, he pointed to the phenomenon known as “prevalence inflation,” where the increase of awareness around mental health struggles has caused some to see all elements of life as diagnosable symptoms and self-fulfilling labels. 

“It’s generally a sign of progress when diagnoses that were once whispered in shameful secrecy enter our everyday vocabulary and shed their stigma,” he explained. “But especially online, where therapy ‘influencers’ flood social media feeds with content about trauma, panic attacks, and personality disorders, greater awareness of mental health problems risks encouraging self-diagnosis and the pathologizing of commonplace emotions.”

Second, he shared that he felt the programs may have been implemented in the wrong place at the wrong time to the wrong demographic. His third factor rings true for many of the digital mental health resources available on a mass scale, like Headspace, which has drawn criticism for its ineffectiveness. “These interventions offered enough information to highlight a problem, but not enough to fix it,” Saxbe said.

What good does it do if we just talk about something but do not have any meaningful methods to fix it? Public awareness is certainly an honorable cause, but couple that with the social media algorithm that TikTok and other platforms provide, and you arrive at an endless feedback loop for netizens to wallow in their emotional distress. 

Another probable factor for the widespread increase in mental health diagnoses is that diagnostic criteria have been broadened. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) has grown significantly in scope of mental health issues recorded.

Workplace Mental Health Institute CEO Peter Diaz explained that well-being, in general, has been impacted by looser diagnostic standards, and funny enough, a good portion of the powers that be who rewrite these standards receive funding from Big Pharma. Diaz also noted that we’re probably struggling more mentally because of increased opportunities for you or me to negatively compare ourselves with peers on social media, as well as our culture of expectations, entitlement, and instant gratification.

Millennials Aren’t the Only Members of the “Entitlement Generation” 

Let’s be honest, young generations love identities. I’m not just talking about gender identities, racial and ethnic identities, or sexual identities. Young millennials and Zoomers have some fascination about basing an element of their identity around some banal obsession. Ask Baby Boomers and older generations if they know their MBTI or which Hogwarts House they “belong” to, and most of them would probably be baffled. 

We’re part of the personality quiz generation, gaining a sense of short-lived amusement after answering questions about our favorite foods to find what Taylor Swift era we are. But this amusement is pointless because it doesn’t really say much about who we truly are as people. There’s nothing scientific or spiritual about allowing a random BuzzFeed staffer to guess which season we were born in based on our favorite Disney movie from each decade.

Whether we like to admit it or not, the same mentality that birthed the fandom is what also birthed the fragile culture surrounding identity. In the past, our predecessors felt a stronger sense of identity toward higher purposes like their church congregation or their country. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find Zoomers who feel honored to be an American or who have any meaningful ties to one particular faith. Social media users can get a lot more validation and attention from being a victim of their skin color, their sexual preferences, and of course, their self-diagnosed disorders.

The Social Media Users Who Cried Wolf…and Those Who Didn’t

This problem overall doesn’t solely stem from your everyday social media users, who, say, partake in trends like “Literally My Life,” where they document traumatic experiences like ending up in psych wards or being raped, all set to the bubblegum pop song by YouTuber Eva Gutowski. 

Countless celebrities and influencers speak up about their struggles with mental health in interviews and online. They likely have good intentions and hope to inspire fans who are going through similar struggles to find their own resolution, but their celebrity status also creates a certain romantic outlook on recovery. 

Some, like actress and model Ashley Benson, will admit that they took Xanax to self-medicate instead of working on lifestyle changes. In response to incidents on set where panic attacks left her unable to work, she explained that she started eating healthier, working out, sleeping more, staying hydrated, and meditating. But TikTok users aren’t treated to her undocumented, daily efforts to heal. TikTok users are watching her view count go up after she welcomes us into a vulnerable, intimate part of her life – the way her skin breaks out in a rash when she’s struck with anxiety.

Once a teenager watches one video on TikTok about, say, Benson’s battle with anxiety, the platform’s powerful algorithm can then recommend similar videos with a never-ending “For You” feed. Some researchers have put body image and mental health content to the test and found that with normal scrolling habits relating to those topics, TikTok will supposedly recommend similar videos every 39 seconds and even suicide content within 2.6 minutes. 

Once enough people get hooked, content trends, and we witness what Bournemouth University researchers once dubbed “Munchausen by Internet,” a.k.a. incentivized attention to those who fake or embellish their struggles. The thing about Munchausen’s syndrome, a psychological block that gives people a goal to remain as unwell as possible so they don’t have to give up any attention they’ve received as a result of being sick, is that it creates a major “Boy Who Cried Wolf” problem for people genuinely struggling with illness.

One psychiatric paper discussing how TikTok users show off mental health diagnoses admitted that self-diagnosed symptomatology has now been well-documented and that rarer diagnoses may have a “distinct appearance of being romanticized, glamourized, and sexualized.” 

This is not to say that all TikTok users are fakers, but we should remain reasonably skeptical of people who aestheticize the battles within their own brains.

You’d think that this romanticization of mental illness would mean that more people find sufferers – real or fakers – to be more attractive, but the opposite may be true. One research study indicated that for both short-term hookups and long-term partnerships, people find hypothetical partners with mental struggles to be significantly below average in terms of attractiveness. This study also suggests that people rate potential partners who have bipolar as being less attractive than a partner who would hypothetically have chronic asthma. 

It’s not aesthetic to “rot,” it’s not cute to be miserable, and it’s not healthy to share your most “goblin mode” moments on social media. The goal should be to overcome your battles, not wallow in them, brag about them, and then insist that the rest of the world accept your self-defeating identity. Authentic cases of bipolar, Tourette’s, or debilitating anxiety aren’t cute quirks. For many diagnosed, the associated symptoms ruin careers or relationships and drain financial resources.

Allopathic Medicine Benefits from Our Diagnoses

I won’t pretend like mental health isn’t a major issue today. After my generation and those younger than me lost precious, formative years where others got to walk in college or high school graduations, attend proms, or toil through the beginnings of normal adult life in lieu of a more digital experience, we’ve exacerbated a general, looming malaise of loneliness. 

Big Pharma isn’t too bummed that the lining of their pocketbooks is getting thicker. The more teens who tell their parents they think they’ve got an anxiety disorder, the more business for Pfizer, Eli Lilly, and more as they manufacture Zoloft or Lexapro. The more teens who tell their parents they think they’ve got diagnosable depression, the more business for Cigna or Kaiser Permanente, who will broker a good deal between the pharmaceutical giants behind those antidepressants.

But no one can be best equipped to resolve their problems when such struggles are glamorized, when it appears to be cooler to adopt an identity around a perceived illness, rid yourself of any personal responsibility and rely on medications since it’s just beyond your control after all. 

“The Covid-19 outbreak is anticipated to have a positive impact on the growth of the global antidepressant drugs market,” reads one report by Allied Market Research about the antidepressant drugs market forecast through 2030. They point out that major depressive disorder is now the leading cause of disability, as it affects over 300 million individuals around the world. 

But a positive impact on this market doesn’t mean a positive impact on society. Therapeutic mind medicines made by pharmaceutical companies have a host of non-fatal adverse issues and addictive qualities. But, they’re also lifestyle drugs that many people can now get their hands on with the help of very affirming physicians. This means they’re prone to abuse, and this sadly has led to an increase in overdose deaths as well.

Closing Thoughts

Even if you are genuinely diagnosed with a mental illness, your diagnosis doesn’t define you. Sure, it’s part of your life, but it’s not the end-all, be-all. One of the top reasons that experts believe mental health conditions are on the rise is, duh, increased social media usage. We place ourselves in emotionally stimulating negative feedback loops that feed us too much information, too often. 

While online therapy services or social media support communities can be life-changing for people looking to heal their minds from what’s ailing them, it’s in all of our best interests to get offline, get in touch with our humanity, and learn who we really are without digital daydreamers convincing us otherwise.

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