For some time now, a certain illness has been quietly devastating life on college campuses across the U.S. No, I’m not talking about COVID-19; I’m referring instead to the growing epidemic of depression and suicidal behavior in today’s teens and young adults.
No surprise there, I know. It’s easy to read some big, broad statement like that and immediately feel compelled to brush it off as hyperbolic or overwrought or simply old news. It’s easy to chalk it up to “growing pains.” The kids are alright, after all. Aren’t they?
Depression is a funny thing.
Not like ha-ha funny. More like strange, fickle in the ways it can sneak up on you, and the ways it can manifest itself. But even more than that, the ways in which we choose to talk about depression are strange.
For much of American history, the public dialogue on depression was pretty much non-existent. When matters of public mental health finally began surfacing in the latter half of the twentieth century, less friendly topics such as depression and suicide still remained untouched in mainstream conversation, largely considered to be taboo.
Then, right around the turn of the second millennium, things began to change. With the advent of the World Wide Web, millions found themselves with the ability to access a whole digital world out of and away from the mainstream. Anyone with a computer could easily hop onto a server and connect with countless like-minded individuals.
New conversations were forming around mental illness, with people constellating in various corners of the internet to discuss it. Eventually, it would seem the former taboo was all anyone could talk about.
I call it the memeification of mental illness. I’m pretty sure it was a big mistake.
To make a meme of something, to “meme-ify” it, is both to identify that thing as a source of a shared human experience, and to somehow comment on or criticize the experience itself. We meme-ify what we wish to understand about ourselves, about others and about the spaces we occupy together.
Naturally, depression memes were inevitable. It was all pretty benign to begin with. Not just benign—it was proactive! Having the freedom to talk and even make jokes about experiences with mental illness made a lot of people feel a little less lonely. It seemed like such a good thing. And it was. But you and I know that good things don’t stay that way for very long on the internet.
The statistics come as a sobering reminder: we are in the midst of a serious public health crisis. In 2000, 12 out of every 100,000 Americans aged 20-24 died by suicide. By 2017, that number increased to 17 per 100,000, marking the highest recorded rate for that age group in decades. So what exactly happened?
As depression memes became increasingly popular among members of an exponentially growing audience, they began to overshadow and even replace any actual substantial discussion on mental health issues online. Being vulnerable was no longer the point; it was about exploiting mental illness for entertainment value.
Depression isn’t something to be ashamed of. But it isn’t a valid form of social currency, either.
These days the internet is more or less just an echo chamber of statements like “I hate myself/I want to die.” For some young adults, such sentiments may begin as jokes but will often later become real. For others, the memes simply reinforce negative emotions and thought patterns that already exist.
Everyone gets hurt, and no one wins. It’s funny how that works.
Grace Pulliam is an 18-year-old creative writing junior from Zachary, Louisiana.