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mental health memes

Making life ‘memeingful’: the unspoken solidarity of mental health memes

I’m the ‘funny friend.’ 

I’m that person you see on your timeline who regularly shares all those idiotic memes; ranging from the funny mental health memes, the sad and downright weird. With people often coming to me as the source of their most relevant memes, I think it’s clear that I probably need to go outside a bit more and get a life. I’ve made a reputation for myself as somebody who never takes life seriously and is always up for a laugh—especially if it’s in the form of a political meme or a sarcastic tweet. But what if I told you that I have OCD, anxiety and depression which, at its worst, led to me spending most of Year 13 too paralysed with fear to function?

If you look deeper into my timeline, you might find the odd post alluding to depression naps, self-sabotage or oversharing. It's usually buried beneath layers of humour. After all, aren’t mental health memes just the ‘norm’ now? Aren’t they just a branch of dark humour that we should take with a pinch of salt?

I think it’s good, firstly, to consider that the relationship between mental health and comedy traces back a lot further than memes. In 1975, for example, psychologist Samuel Janus published a now frequently-cited study into this relationship. He studied 55 successful stand-up comedians of the time—people who literally made a living out of being the ‘funny friend’- and found that 80% of them had sought therapy for mental health issues. He ultimately theorised that comedians use humour as ‘a language of protest’ against the all-consuming feelings of anxiety and depression, which eventually puts them back in control over their emotions and ‘permits them to function.’

Although I might not be a stand-up comedian (I definitely should be though, I’m hilarious), I think that this study has a point. I obviously can’t speak for every person with mental health issues, but myself, and several others I know, humour is an important coping mechanism that I credit a lot of my functioning to. If you live a life where everything is wholly clouded and consumed with dense, inexplicable darkness, humour provides a crack of light between the clouds, showing you that one day they will clear.

My depression, anxiety and OCD have taken so much time and enjoyment away from my life, I feel like sometimes I will never be the person I was before these illnesses took hold of me.

With humour, however, I feel like I am getting a little piece of my old self back. Ultimately, I share mental health memes because I believe that making light of your issues gives you a sense of control over an illness that often has the habit of taking control over you. These memes don’t give the intrusive thoughts or intense hopelessness you experience the attention they need to survive. They diminish their importance and reduce them to what they are: an inconvenient part of our life that we can laugh off and then brush aside.

Memes, then, are an extension to this vitally important relationship between comedy and mental health. They put the power back in your hands and remind you that you are not your illness: your illness is just a part of you.

Mental health memes are especially helpful because they often depict a situation or scenario that you can relate to. Seeing a meme that references something unique to your experience makes you realise that whoever created it, whether they be in a completely different city, country or continent, feels the same way that you do. The very existence of the meme challenges the feelings of loneliness and isolation that come as a result of mental illnesses. While your mind is always telling you that you’re a freak and nobody will ever understand you, the internet says different.

The main argument against mental health memes is that they do more harm than good.

Some people say that these memes reinforce toxic behaviour patterns, encouraging us whiny millennials to indulge in our problems rather than taking proactive steps to solve them. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Like many people, I find it hard to talk openly about my mental health. The truth is that the world isn’t in a position where we can talk about the intricacies of living with mental illness. Nobody wants to hear about how it affects your eating habits, hygiene and relationships. With memes, in turn, appearing to broach that subject, it offers a comfortable middle ground for us. They help to bridge that gap between complete silence and full disclosure and slowly, but surely open up a dialogue.

As Janus said in his study, humour acts as a ‘defence against inescapable panic and anxiety’, and I firmly believe that mental health memes are bringing that lifesaving line of defence into the 21st century; they are the first step in opening up a dialogue about mental health that we desperately need to progress and help each other survive. 

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