I Want to Die a Lovely Death: the Glamorization of Depression in Popular Culture
The following is a Scholastic Gold Key winner in the Journalism category, written by senior Sofie Praestgaard. Congratulations Sofie!
February 16, 2015
Close your eyes and let the blackness spread across your body. You’re sitting in class – you can’t remember which one, they all wrench your stomach and thrust knots into your back. Your hands cup your cheeks, your eyelids clench to hold back the reservoir that is behind them. You have this aching in the back of your skull, in the hollow place behind your ribcage, at the bottom of your throat and in the folds of your ears that no number of honey, I love you, are you ok?’s will ever alleviate.
You count things because you’re nervous, seventeen minutes late to school, 155 pounds, six Advil, three hours of sleep last night. One, two, three, four, sixteen lines on your forearm that burn under the sleeves of the sweatshirt that you’ve worn for the past four days. You hate yourself, you hate the way your friends laugh, you hate the tiles in the school hallways and everything makes you want to melt into a pathetic puddle of muffled sobs. This is the setting of today. These, the ceaseless rituals of depression, are the setting of tomorrow. These are the setting of next week and next month and next July.
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, 11% of teenagers will develop clinical depression by age 18, and one in thirteen adolescents in America attempt suicide each year. Like a nightmare that is so close to reality that it is impossible to differentiate between awake and asleep, this incurable disease plagues the minds and daily lives of billions of people, including myself.
You count things because you’re nervous, seventeen minutes late to school, 155 pounds, six Advil, three hours of sleep last night. One, two, three, four, sixteen lines on your forearm that burn under the sleeves of the sweatshirt that you’ve worn for the past four days. You hate yourself, you hate the way your friends laugh, you hate the tiles in the school hallways and everything makes you want to melt into a pathetic puddle of muffled sobs. This is the setting of today. ”
Today’s culture, however, poses a mounting threat to victims of depression. Society’s views on mental illnesses have historically far strayed from the horrors of their realities, but the existing worlds of social and mass media cause these misconceptions to grow and to continuously expand their influence. Psychologists agree that the hardships endured by those who suffer from depression are neglected, or worse, made to look attractive in a shockingly vast variety of ways. In short, the glamorization of this funereal disease that is far too present in modern popular culture jeopardizes the mental health and stability of those who suffer from it.
Shut your eyelids again. This time let yourself cry, let the salty liquid spread your eyeliner across your cheeks, use it to write a poem about how much you want to die. Look out the window at the heavy clouds that are crying, too. Your hair is perfectly disheveled and there is a nice shade of violet under your bottom lashes so people know you tossed your sheets in a long, sleepless night. Roll your sleeves up, darling, and take a picture. You’re beautiful.
Compare the first two simulations. The first is depression. The second is not, in fact, a look into the life of a Vogue model. This is what society tells suffering teenagers the disorder looks and feels like. I am certain that if I were to have a photo-shoot on a day where depression has hit me like a freight train, the only thing that would stream across my skin would be blood.
The most threatening perception of depression in current culture is that it is beautiful or desirable, that self-harm is brave, that suicide is noble. Depressed people are commonly viewed, particularly by Western teenage girls, as “beautifully tragic,” or possessing a deeper understanding and wisdom of the human condition than average people. These “heroes” endure their pain quietly and serve as perfect models of human vulnerability and strength (Bine). Although regarding yourself as a hero of sorts would seem to aid in lifting your spirits up from the depths of depression, this conception is sickeningly unrealistic.
In my experience, not showering for three days because you simply do not care about yourself enough to remove the grease from your hair is the last thing from beautiful. Also, said “heroism” to these teenagers does not involve helping themselves and others fight off the enemy that is depression itself, but rather attempting to exemplify the perceived relationship between mental illness and beauty.
The dark tragic hero is profiled chiefly on the internet in “Depression Blogs” – blogs that feature pretty photos or bits of writing featuring crying, self-harm, or even suicide, according to Anne-Sophie Bine, in her article “Social Media is Redefining ‘Depression.'” These misrepresentative gold-mines are easily searched and accessed with tags such as “sad,” “depression,” “crying,” or “cutting” on sites such as Tumblr and Pinterest. To young people who may be developing the disorder, this idealism pervades any innocent efforts to learn about their own minds. Caitlin Dewey, author of “Self-Harm Blogs Can Pose Problems for Those Fighting Depression” believes that, more alarmingly, to those who have already suffered, the blogs may provoke relapses in sadness, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm.
Prominent psychologist Mark Reinecke agrees that the “sense of gratification” that comes with being part of something “dark and beautiful” serves as an escape for these teens, and rather than seeking help for their problems, they revel in them. What these teenagers often fail to realize is that this illness cannot be treated with black and white photos and sad poetry; proper counseling and medicine are the only methods that can expel it (as defined by the National Institutes of Mental Health). In alleviating this pain through perceived beauty, young people harbor depression, an enemy that lurks within the folds of the brain, for increased periods of time. This in turn transforms the potential they possess to be their own heroes into an enemy to themselves and to others who similarly suffer.
Though the internet encloses the most accessible source of romanticized perceptions of depression, teenagers become immersed in these portrayals through mass media formats such as television shows, movies, and advertising of merchandise. Movies targeted at teens, such as Heathers or American Pie, often render the illness and its symptoms (self-hatred, worthlessness, substance abuse, and more) as “hip” or “cool” teenage behaviors, as explained by Maragrita Tartakovsky, in her article, “Media’s Damaging Depictions of Mental Illness.”
Because natural adolescent instincts create the need for teens to “fit in,” these portrayals add to the too-common desire to become or to continue to feel these things. Such movies and television shows also broadcast myths regarding therapists, such as that they are either completely perfect or selfishly corrupt, and according to Tartakovsky, to face them is, again, a form of heroism.
According to Jessica Portner, author of “Many Factors Contribute to Teen Suicide,” young people who are neglected or lack friends and family who they may confide in often solely rely upon these outlets for comfort. The information that is found on TV or online is often riddled with fallacies that both foster social stigma and promote the glamorized image of depression.”
Even the sale of clothing has been impacted by the glamorization of depression. In early 2014, hip young clothing store Urban Outfitters was forced to pull a shirt that was covered in the word “depression” after they received intense public scrutiny. Psychologists such as Dr. Reinecke and Dr. Stan Kutcher agree that the encouragement of teenagers to view depression as attractive bombards them from all angles of life. The immense cultural range of both the internet and mass entertainment media causes the glamorized view of depression to become engrained in teenage minds, continuously decreasing their chances of healthy recovery.
This mainstream view of the “tragic glamor” of depression easily and quickly spreads among teens, and myths about the illness are consequently expanded. This poses a particular threat to depression victims because social/cultural factors highly influence the disorder, both in the individual’s life and on the societal level. The disease is partly genetic and partly environmentally caused, meaning outside factors may trigger episodes.
In my case, I developed clinical depression chiefly because everyone on my father’s side of the family deals with it, but I was moved to seek help when it became formidably menacing to my mental health after a major heartbreak. Depression and its treatments differ vastly in various regions of the world.
The depressed individual’s “cultural conception of reality” as psychologist Anthony Marsella calls it, is highly shapeable; the culture in which the disorder exists greatly impacts the individual’s struggle with it. Factors such as religious views, social stigma, and mainstream societal view influence the individual perception of his illness, and thus must be identified. Marsella feels that this is especially important in western culture, where symptoms relating to guilt, self-deprecation, and suicidal behaviors are more common (and are essentially thought to be desirable) especially in teens.
Additionally, Western culture has historically promoted the “universality” of depression, which often causes victims to look to each other for help rather than seeking professional treatment. Again, this sinks sufferers further and further in the cycle of self-victimization and self-deprecation.
The attractive delusions regarding depression are also spread rapidly because teenagers often turn to media and social media for both comfort and information. According to Jessica Portner, author of “Many Factors Contribute to Teen Suicide,” young people who are neglected or lack friends and family who they may confide in often solely rely upon these outlets for comfort. The information that is found on TV or online is often riddled with fallacies that both foster social stigma and promote the glamorized image of depression. Portner establishes that these myths include the idea that all mental patients are dangerous, that depression is a normal teenage phase, or that that suicide is a “reasonable, and even appealing” way to end suffering. Frighteningly, studies have shown that the majority of Americans get their knowledge on mental illnesses from the mass media, according to Tartakovsky.
Additionally, progress or healing for mental patients rarely graces television and movie screens, which Dr. David Wahl believes “perpetuates the myth that treatment is ineffective.” This dangerously accessible wealth of false information causes teens, even those who are not clinically depressed, to self-diagnose and self-victimize, reducing their chances of allowing others to help them and essentially digging themselves into a pit of sadness, guilt, and isolation from the care they need.
The isolation of depressed teenagers within like-minded communities offers them unhealthy peer-to-peer exposure. These communities, which mostly congregate on photo-sharing social media websites such as Tumblr, lack diversity of life experience: the minds of all the teens that discuss and communally glamorize their experiences with depression exist in the same dark place.
Dr. Reinecke warns against these homogeneous communities, saying that teenagers engulfed in them “essentially feed off each other’s negativity and in turn decrease their likelihood and willingness to seek treatment.”
These bonds between bloggers can become treacherous; Dewey believes that they indirectly convince each other that cutting, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts are normal or tragically admirable.
For example, I recently came across a Tumblr blog entitled “i-m-d-e-p-p-r-e-s-s-e-d.” The blog features the characteristic black and white photos of crying and cutting and posts containing writing such as “I just want to end it.” The “About Me” section consists of a long list of self-deprecating comments from the 8th grade girl who wrote it, and her followers idolize her and convey their similar thoughts.
Some think the glamorization is not harmful chiefly because it helps victims find self-worth, communal relief, and acceptance from likeminded people. However, the prolonged isolation that comes with the participation in these tight knit communities and the detrimental effects this has on the path to recovery highly outweighs this temporary relief.”
These blogs are a huge source of the societal romanticism ofthe illness because, as Bine points out, teenagers “feel they must be accepted by [these] communit[ies], so they advertise their beautiful suffering to each other on their blogs” and through comments.
A great number of “depressed blogs” also openly discuss methods of self-harm or suicide with followers, and in this way is harmful or even life-threatening information spread. One the most alarming of the comments on the aforementioned blog featured a bit of advice on self-harm: “[lie] to those people who ask you about those scars… answering that it was your cat” (“About Me”).
Dewey notes that the judgment of a teenager is not as highly developed as that of an adult, so they can be easily convinced of the accuracy and helpfulness of these statements. Rarely are stories of recovery, links to reliable informational websites, or practical methods of coping with depression discussed. The grouping of depressed teens, their close bonds, and the perceived benefits they gain from this online world make it very easy both for the entire societal perception (which is so impacted by teenage culture) to be warped and for said teenagers to be essentially isolated from recovery.
Some think the glamorization is not harmful chiefly because it helps victims find self-worth, communal relief, and acceptance from likeminded people. However, the prolonged isolation that comes with the participation in these tight knit communities and the detrimental effects this has on the path to recovery highly outweighs this temporary relief. Additionally, a sense of self-worth gained by believing oneself to be beautiful solely because of depression is a superficial confidence; only the revival of former feelings of self-assurance brought by the effective professional treatment of the illness are truly lasting.
Open your eyes and look into the mirror. Your hair is knotted and your face is greasy. There is no makeup running from the corners of your eyes or beautifully pooling on your cheeks because your daily ritual is not stroking mascara over your eyelashes and flashing pictures, but scratching the tears and snot off your crumpled face. Look again, and stare at who you see. The grey eyes on the other side of the glass are not beautiful right now, but their owner has all the power to raise the corners of your mouth again and let the blue back into them.
My battle with the enemy of depression was not able to be won until I stared at its ugliness straight in the face. The depression victim must save himself by recognizing the extent of the damage his disease has done him and allowing proper care to put the light back in his complexion. The idea that depression is something beautiful only possesses the capability to leave him swimming in his own self-deprecation; it suffocates him and makes full, tangible recovery impossible. For these reasons, society’s glamorization of depression is essentially killing its teenagers.