Young people, mental health, and social media

Written by Trinity Barnatt

Has the media fabricated mental health issues in young people?

In a short answer, no. Of course, it hasn’t. Nonetheless, a generation of young people with poor mental health has been produced, and the statistics speak for themselves.

According to a study by McManus et al in 2009, across the UK, 1 in 5 young people aged between 16-24 experience mental illness in some form, with emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression being the most prominent. In 2015, 22% of young people aged at only 15, reported having self-harmed (Brooks et al). Female suicide rates are currently recorded at their highest for over a decade, with male rates at a threefold higher (Samaritans, 2017).

Why are our younger generations struggling so much? I could name many factors, including the education system, underfunded mental health services, and just the overwhelming ignorance when it comes to mental illness in young people. I could go on – but in this article, I’m going to focus on one single aspect of social media, aside from dedicated to jokes and ‘memes’ about mental illness and suicide, and whether the media has had a catastrophic impact on this.

There are approximately 120,000,000 google results for ‘suicide memes’, there are 488 thousand posts under #depressionmemes on Instagram, and there are countless Facebook pages dedicated to these types of posts. The question is why – and to what end? Perhaps it’s the camaraderie of mental illness sufferers, uniting together to say “YOU’RE NOT ALONE”. Maybe it’s only through humorous (and often self-deprecating) formats that this message can be shared. When you post a meme or a joke about suicide or depression, it almost offers a sort of safety blanket. If you’re ever approached by someone regarding it, it’s easy to play it down and convince people it’s nothing serious, because what young people fear most is getting caught. Almost as if mental illness is a crime.

Are they silly for thinking this way? Regardless of age, mental illness is ridiculed, especially in the younger generations due to the experience of adolescence as ‘supposed to be hard’. Is it meant to be this hard though? 75% of adults with a diagnosable mental health problem experience symptoms by the age of 24 (McGorry et al, 2007). Yet this stigma remains, shown in many of our authority figures. Teachers, parents, even some medical professionals dismiss mental illness as being down to hormones and puberty. They continuously fail to take our problems seriously. Young people have created a community – a sanctuary if you will – to express our pain and portray our darkest, inner-most thoughts in a ‘safe’ way (safe from parental criticism and consequence).

Are these posts therapeutic? Do they encourage the younger generation to feel a specific way? Do they create a trend in mental illness? I think the answer becomes both positive, and negative. It’s been established that these memes can commiserate and bond isolated people together. But, perhaps it normalises suicidal thoughts and mental illness too much. It is a positive thing to share that mental illness is a wide-spread disease that affects millions to reduce the shame in it. However, arguably young, mentally healthy individuals could be compelled to fabricate (knowingly or not) poor mental health to become a part of this ‘trend’.

The entertainment industry has already influenced this countless times in the romanticising of mental illness and suicide in TV and film. Take the British teen drama series, Skins, which depicts drug use, reckless sex, self-harm and suicide in an eerily alluring way. Young people longed for central character Effy Stonem’s psychotic depression, as they idolised her dangerous coping mechanisms and dysfunctional relationships, and there are hundreds of more examples of this. Does this make for a recipe for disaster?

I find it hard to believe that mental illness can truly be manufactured in this way. Teens do want to follow trends, however arguably not in such a serious topic as this. The media can help understand emotions and thoughts already lingering, creating the illusion of them being the origin. Mental illness is deep-rooted in genetics, traumas, and life’s often cruel experiences. Contrary to popular belief, young peoples’ problems are just as real and troublesome as any ‘adult’ problems. To place blame on the media is, quite frankly, ignorant, and it is a poor excuse to use to ignore and disregard a young persons’ struggles.

Trinity Barnatt – A first-year English student at the University of Leicester, originally from Bourne, Lincolnshire. Instagram: @trinity_b._

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