Updated: Apr 13, 2021
Memes. This bite-size, picture-caption combo has become a mode of conversation for young people. Widely loved, generously used, and endlessly evolving, memes are becoming a big part of the way we consume and enjoy content.
I’ve always found the use of memes for mental health based content to be particularly interesting. The tone of written content on mental health tends to be sober, gentle, and encouraging. This is in somewhat contrast with the way memes operate; they add a hint of spice, humor, and unflinching honesty to a statement. A plea to go to therapy when one feels the need to cannot be said in as plain a way as “Please consider seeing a therapist if you are experiencing emotional distress”. It will instead be dressed up as a caption reading “my face when you avoid going to therapy” typed above the picture of the disappointed cricket fan, now a popular meme template.
Even though the message is serious, memes make the medium of expression light, and this novelty in communication is very interesting.
I follow several meme pages on mental health. They all make me chuckle-- until I scroll down to the comments section. There, everyone is relating very strongly to the content or tagging somebody who would. Almost nobody seems to be doing something other than laughing. You wouldn’t expect insight on clinical depression to be met with such bonhomie, and yet the mood around this content seems cheery rather than depressing.
Research backs up this curious observation of mine. In a survey that assessed the responses of 200 people, it was found that those who experienced significant depressive symptoms rated depressive memes as more funny and relatable than those with no significant symptoms (Akram et al., 2020). Additionally, those facing severe symptoms thought that these memes could help improve the mood of others feeling the same way, but those with no significant symptoms did not think so. A survey on college students in Jakarta, Indonesia showed similar results. 47% of the survey respondents thought that looking at memes helped ease their clinical symptoms of depression and anxiety, and made them feel better (Kariko & Anasih, 2019). Something interesting is happening here. It’s only those who are experiencing the condition referenced by the meme that are finding it more humorous, and there are a sizable proportion of people who believe that these memes can help them feel better.
Here we see a positive thing occur: memes provide a momentary upliftment in mood for those who find the content relatable. They may also provide a sense of community to those who relate to the meme, making them feel less alone in their struggle.
While the benefit of these memes is clear, the reactions they invoke make me feel slightly apprehensive. Are memes becoming a momentary source of relief and support, or is there a dependency on them that could be unhealthy? In a conversation with Hitesh Sanwal, the founder of Memez for Mental Health, he shared with me his insight into the topic. He said that these kinds of memes lead to either a realisation that one may be experiencing something that needs clinical attention, or validation that their experience is acceptable as is. Mr. Sanwal, an avid mental health advocate, tries to ensure that his memes do not validate poor coping strategies or make light of them, but in fact lead to realisation and help people get to the help they need. I think that validation to a certain degree is healthy if it results in de-stigmatisation of a condition and helps someone believe that their experience is real and should not be treated as a sham. However, if the validation makes the individual feel that the condition need not be addressed or corrected, that might be a problem. Depending on memes as a fun outlet to one’s distress should not become a substitute for seeking help from a mental health professional.
If you are a happy content consumer of these memes, much like I am, I recommend being a little cautious. Laugh whole-heartedly at the memes if you must, but don’t forget that it does not give you a free pass to skip therapy, should you need it. In this case perhaps, despite being helpful, laughter is not the best medicine.
Content Writer, Limelighting Life Collective
Akram, U. (2020, February 12). Depression memes may be a coping mechanism for people with mental illness. The Conversation. Retrieved on March 17th, 2021 from https://theconversation.com/depression-memes-may-be-a-coping-mechanism-for-people-with-mental-illness-129847
Akram, U., Drabble, J., Cau, G., Hershaw, F., Rajenthran, A., Lowe, M., Trommelen, C., Ellis, J.G. (2020). Exploratory study on the role of emotion regulation in perceived valence, humour, and beneficial use of depressive internet memes in depression. Scientific Reports, 10, 899. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-57953-4
Kariko, A.A.T & Anasih, N. (2019). Laughing at one’s self: A study on self-reflective memes. Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 1175(2019), 012250. doi:10.1088/1742-6596/1175/1/012250