The Romanticism of Mental Illness in the Media.
Where do we draw the line?
We are a generation raised on media. A smart phone in hand suggests we are glued to the headlines, the constant clickbait, and scrolling aimlessly through the lives of others in photographic form in an ever-growing social world.
One seemingly positive outcome of the ‘iPhone generation’ is the conversation happening surrounding the delicate subject of mental health and mental illness. In recent years, there has been a surge of positive news stories around mental illness, and an opening of dialogue around a subject once considered taboo. A worrying trend has emerged that raises a number of questions: Where do we draw the line between awareness and healthy conversation and what could be regarded as blatant romanticism and exploitation of mental illness? Who is to blame? Is the media - in all its forms - doing more harm than good and have we as a society, albeit through best intentions, set the conversation back?
As a young, socially aware person, it makes me wonder if we, influenced by the media, have turned a positive societal conversation into something that is potentially encouraging misdiagnosis, self diagnosis, and fetishism of mental illness to grow around us. “An alarming 34 per cent of UK teens admitted lying about having a mental illness in the past because it’s fashionable to be sick, according to online therapy service, Mentaline” (Donovan, F, Glamourising Mental Illness Doesn’t Help Those Truly Suffering, 2018) From social media platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr, to imagery advertisements and promotions, photography and art causes and feeds the romanticism of mental illness. With a tendency to sugar coat and palliate, especially on social media, a distorted meaning and reality of metal illness can easily be portrayed and in turn, diminish the viewers' understanding of what it really means. Advertisements for certain products could be seen to sensationalise mental illness and diminish its severity: poking fun at and trivialising certain conditions to gain profit.
We have to question the ethics of the companies commissioning this, and the photographers making the images. Is it their intention to mock or are they ignorant and lacking in knowledge? Imagery, through photography, art and graphics, has a part to play too. Evidence can be found of projects by photographers and artists concerning their own mental health or their experience of being around those with a mental illness. Some of these, for example Laura Abril's ‘On Eating Disorders’ and George's ‘Boys do Cry’, show emotive - and a sometimes shocking - reality of what it is to have or experience a mental illness. There are, however, some examples that question whether the artist is glamourising mental illness; making it seem something to aspire to or find beautiful.
There are many faults in our media and through our art form that pose an important question. Does media imagery in the 21st Century romanticise mental illness? Social media plays an abnormally large part in the lives of this ‘iPhone’ generation, so much so that it can be difficult to find someone in your life that doesn’t have an Instagram account - or two! On some levels these platforms play a positive role in the lives of the consumer. It could be argued that they bring people closer together, create communities and allow communication to span the globe. These social networking apps allow individuals to share their lives and feelings openly with friends, followers or subscribers. When it comes to mental health, social media is enabling conversation to bloom around individual experiences, and the ability to post photographs of oneself or others can make these messages very powerful using the medium of photography. Using images in this way means these platforms can be - and often are - positive and educational. That being said, there are downfalls.
The popular social networking app Tumblr was founded in 2007 and allows users to create short- form blogs; posting photographs, created imagery, video or text. Tumblr could be seen as the first social networking site to open the door to open and frank conversations about mental health. Many of these conversations became a kind of ‘on line therapy’ for some consumers. Tumblr is now host to many posts about mental illness, not all of them positive or helpful. Explicit content is often posted, including detailed imagery of self harm and, in some cases, of young woman accompanied by poetic captions about suicide being ‘beautiful’. Does this seem like a stimulus for healthy discussion? These posts are representative of a growing and worrying trend and appear to seek to
make mental illnesses seem romantic and beautiful; something attractive and aspirational. With very little moderation, this imagery can be seen by viewers of any age and in any mental state. An especially disturbing trend on Tumblr is the hashtag ‘#pro-ana’, short for pro anorexia. This growing community, promoting anorexia and bulimia contains images with ‘tips and tricks’ on how to maintain these eating disorders as if they were fashion trends - blatantly glamourising these crippling illnesses and labelling them not as eating disorders, but as ‘life style choices’. “Social media is particularly awful in creating this distorted image of mental health that is sometimes appealing to people, making it an ‘aesthetic’.” (Singh, 2018). More recently, the popular mainstream app Tiktok has been called out for hosting 'pro-ana' content. This new and trending app is host to users of all ages, making the pro-ana content incredibly dangerous to it's users, especially the impressionable younger demographic. Although Tiktok has said "the safety and wellbeing of users" is its top priority, the eating disorder charity Beat has said otherwise, stating that there are still accessible harmful videos. Videos such as "what i [sic] eat in a day - under 1,200 calories" trend regularly, the visual aspect seemingly making the content hit harder and triggering some users. Some of these videos have gone viral, with examples reaching 1.5 million views. Whilst scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, targeted advertisements for clothing lines or jewellery often pop up. Within these advertisements lies a problem though. In 2018, the retail giants Amazon and Not on the High Street were criticised for selling products that ‘mocked’ mental illness. Users expressed their feelings, with one tweet commenting: “That’s incredibly damaging. And it’s bloody miserable that this is a message that’s been repeated so many times that seeing it has become so normal it just warrants an eye roll.” One example saw mugs being sold on both platforms with the words “I am not schizophrenic and neither am I”. Products bearing flippant quotes like this run the risk of diminishing the severity of mental illness and encouraging nonchalant attitudes towards certain conditions. Despite both sites pulling some items from sale following complaints, many more items that could be seen as irreverent to the issue are still being sold. One disturbing product is a hoodie still being sold on
Amazon emblazoned with the words “anorexia (an-uh-rek-see-uh) like bulimia, except with self control.” The message they’re sending is clear...mental health is a joke to them. In a similar vein, the brand ban.do have also been called out for exploiting mental illness for profit. I have personally witnessed their advertisements on social media for their jewellery - necklaces simply spelling out the words ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’. The company justified this as their attempt to “remove the stigmas associated with mental illness” and said that their necklaces were a step in the right direction. We must, however question why society now sees mental illness as some kind of fashion accessory. It is not ‘cute’, ‘quirky’ or something to aspire to so why do companies like Amazon, Not on the High Street, and Ban.do think that capitalising on mental illnesses as a fashion trend is a ‘step in the right direction’, when in actual fact they are trivialising and romanticising serious conditions? Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t stop there. Social media ‘influencers’ are a huge part of Instagram. Much of their content is made up of sponsored posts or advertisements for other companies. In some cases, influencers even have their own product lines. With 4.9 million followers, Corinna Kopf released a small clothing range she had ‘designed’. This ‘drop’ included a t shirt with the printed slogan ‘My Anxieties Have Anxieties’, and a hoodie which bore the dictionary definition of 'anxiety' on the back. Kopf promoted her new clothing line on her Instagram account with the caption “Anxiety sucks...donating 15% to adaa.org" (Anxiety and Depression Association of America). The hoodie sold at around $30. However the ethics behind this have to be questioned. Is using mental illness as a selling point to gain some form of profit really the selfless good deed these sellers are making it out to be? Some Instagram users were not pleased with Kopt’s use of design, expressing in full force that “mental illness isn’t a trend”. Another commenting that “This isn’t quirky or cute. It’s disgusting. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
The common denominator across social media, advertising and other aspects of media is imagery. Images, photographs, art work and graphics are all powerful tools that stick in the viewers' mind and are used heavily and effectively. There are many historical examples of links between the creative mind and mental health. In 2015, a large study concluded that creatives and mental illness are connected at a genetic level.
“Painters, musicians, writers and dancers were, on average, 25% more likely to carry the gene variants [that raise the risk of bipolar and schizophrenia]”. (Sample ,2015) Terms like ‘tortured artist’ and ‘mad genius’ have become part of modern parlance. However, they carry a far deeper meaning. Plato was the originator of the term 'tortured artist', coming into existence after he banned poetry. Plato deduced that poets were the imitators of the world and “therefore far from the truth”. He described poets as ‘tragic’ and said that they were responsible for the corruption of youth, inciting them with passion and emotion rather than the ‘faculties of reason’. Photographers and artists have always produced work reflecting mental health challenges, whether it is themselves struggling or someone they know. Some of these projects have been universally accepted to have furthered the understanding of illness. However there are others that have polarised opinions as to whether or not their work has crossed a line. In creating work based on this subject, has the artist knowingly or unknowingly glamourised mental illness? Alice Joiner sees her work as playing a role in her recovery. Joiner is a British photographer who suffered from an eating disorder, depression, anxiety and a crippling social drug habit. Joiner created her work ‘silently’ throughout her suffering and recovery. She did not share her photographs for many years and instead built up a body of work which, in her own words “evolved through my healing and now the present day, and informs everything I create as an artist and a woman in recovery.” (Joiner, 2017). Joiner sets a positive example of art helping in the recovery process as well as documenting the suffering; photography was her outlet and helped her on her journey. In a similar vein, Albrecht Durer’s ‘Melancholia’, a 1514 painting depicting what we now know as depression in, I believe, a beautiful way. “Melancholia was known and experienced in the middle ages, a darkness of the mind resulting from an imbalance of the humours. That darkness is marked on the brooding face of Durer’s spirit of melancholy.” (Jones, 2015) The beaming rays of sun in the background piercing through the sky juxtaposed with the busy and woeful foreground represents, for me, the hardships of now and the light at the end of the tunnel.
"Many individuals who develop substance use disorders (SUD) are also diagnosed with mental disorders, and vice versa. Multiple national population surveys have found that about half of those who experience a mental illness during their lives will also experience a substance use disorder and vice versa" (Sterling S, Weisner C, Hinman A, Parthasarathy S. Access to Treatment for Adolescents With Substance Use and Co-Occurring Disorders: Challenges and Opportunities. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2010) The legacy of photographer Davide Sorrenti is not a positive one. Sorrenti made his name in fashion photography with the rise of ‘Heroin Chic’, popularised in the 1990s and widely accused of glamourising and fetishising skinniness to the extreme. The look, characterised by pale skin, emaciated features, dark circles under the eyes and angular bone structures, was a reaction against the wholesome look of models such as Cindy Crawford. It was reflective of drug addiction, but ‘beautiful’. Sorrenti’s work caught the attention of US President Bill Clinton (1997); “You do not need to glamourise addiction to sell clothes...the glorification of heroin is not creative, it’s destructive. It’s not beautiful; it’s ugly. And this is not about art; it’s about life and death. And glorifying death is not good for any society.” Unfortunately, heroin chic was not the end of the fetishism of mental illness. With the rise of social media and the romanticism of mental illness growing with it, aspirations of becoming someone who is suffering began to materialise. In 2018, a shocking 34% of teenagers in the UK had admitted to lying about having a mental illness because they thought it was “fashionable to be sick.” (Metaline therapy service, 2018) What made them think that being sick was ‘fashionable’? Social media and advertisement imagery plays a major role in glamourising mental illness. Every teen today seems to have a social media account. The images on their feed sink into their subconscious, along with the notion that mental illness is beautiful and something to aspire to. The idea that images could be convincing young people that having a mental illness makes them more attractive or more wanted by others is absurd and disturbing but the evidence for this is strong.
In 2012, researchers at The University of Texas found that in general, men are more likely to be attracted to you if you look “psychologically vulnerable but only for 'short term involvement' i.e. sex.” (Belinky, 2016) This is the kind of effect imagery has on people. This is a dangerous message which risks fetishisation and glamorisation. From a woman's perspective, it risks them romanticising and faking ill health. A user of the Canadian dating service Plenty Of Fish has used his platform to explain why girl’s mental illnesses works in his favour. “If you have a girl who’s already happy and confident...you won’t affect her life as much. But if she’s depressed or has a crappy home life, you have the chance to be one of the few good things in her life and she’ll like you more.” (Belinky, 2016) Knight in shining armour? No. This is a man that fetishises mentally ill women. This is the effect the romanticism of mental illness in the media has had on our society. So, where DO we draw the line?
The romanticism of mental illness in the media has been a problem for a long time now, but how do we stop this? How do we know where that line is? I think the answer lies in the detail. Taking time to just look closer and to listen more to the words we use in passing. Could that phrase we used to describe that person be offensive? Could it be seen as romanticism? As a photographer, I know that I have to think about ethics in detail before I produce images. I also think that after my research into the romanticism of mental illness in the media I have learnt that imagery - including my own - can play a part in the problem. Maybe I need to look closer at how I represent mental illness in my work to make it more ‘real’ and less romantic. For the message it sends to be a positive one that sparks healthy conversation. We do not need to romanticise mental illness in order to carry a conversation about it. Be careful. Listen and look closer. We can stop this cycle.