“Romanticising” Mental Health Is Not All Bad- Here’s Why
“Before you conquer the beast you first must make it beautiful”
It’s enough to take a quick scroll through Tumblr to see how young people are relating to mental health issues. You’ll be met with sad quotes against a cool-toned “aesthetics” of rain or a girl crying in the background.
Emaciated girls frolicking in a meadow, with their ribs jutting out disconcertingly from their body. You’ll see perfectly red lips with a blue pill pressed between them — #IAmNotOkay.
In recent years there has been more talk of romanticizing mental health and the problems and benefits it has brought. On one hand, it has contributed to destigmatizing mental illness.
After all, it’s much easier to entice people’s support by presenting the tragic death of a beautiful girl on Thirteen Reasons Why than by lecturing them on the chemical imbalances in the brains of depressed people. Humans are moved by emotions; we hate to see others suffering.
Art presents those with mental illnesses as human, which allows people who may never have experienced anything similar themselves to empathize and offer their help.
On the other hand, the “depressed aesthetic” makes people less likely to seek out help.
If your illness is what makes you beautiful and unique, why would you want to get rid of it? Our timelines have become saturated with heartbreaking quotes that we scroll by without giving a second thought.
People get dumped by their significant other, experience valid emotions of sadness and loneliness and equating those emotions to a larger neurological issue share a post about depression to their feed.
This trivialises the struggle of people who are actually grappling with their mental health- it’s normal to feel drown trodden sometimes, negative emotions are part of every human experience, but they are not the same as pervasive mental health problems.
I know personally that as a teenager, instead of going and seeking help from my parents I kept my own struggles with mental health quiet. Reading through those seriously concerning diary entries that I wrote when I was fifteen, I traced my refusal to speak up back to one thing.
I was scared, scared of not being taken seriously, scared that I was just another angsty teenage girl with an invented problem just seeking attention.
Kind of ironic considering that I kept completely silent about it, that I masked it from everyone until it got really bad.
But that’s what those sad aesthetic posts do to the easily impressionable minds of young people. They convince you that nothing is really wrong, that everyone feels this way and that you should just get on with it.
Posting things about mental health disorders without considering if you’re using the correct medium to express those thoughts or if those thoughts are even accurate ( e.g. posting about depression when you’re merely sad), makes light of the issue and is harmful to those who are actually struggling.
It prevents people from asking for help when they need it.
The sad reality is, that one in four people in the world will be affected by some neurological disorder in their lives. Suffering from mental health problems isn’t exclusively reserved for quirky misfits as the media would lead us to believe.
It affects people from all walks of life and circumstances.
And those who’ve had to endure the horrible reality of mental disorders know that there isn’t anything beautiful or uplifting about the ordeal.
There is nothing inspiring about anxiously watching the night melt into morning, without managing to drift off to sleep for the sixth night in a row. There is nothing enchanting about experiencing constant waves of paranoia and questioning whether your relationships or your reality is even real.
Mental health problems are not some token personality traits that people adopt to try and seem “interesting”, they are genuine issues that negatively affect people’s lives.
Having acknowledged the problems that arise from romanticizing mental health, I believe that there’s nothing wrong with exploring these themes through art or trying to find beauty in the experience.
When explored with care and authenticity art can give people an outlet to deal with these issues and help educate others. Creative people are also more susceptible to neurological disorders, and expressing themselves through their preferred medium helps them compartmentalize their experience.
I know that in some of the worst periods of my life, sometimes writing was the only thing that kept me moving.
I went through a stage of covering my walls in word definitions, listing them off every night in an effort to fall asleep. I wrote messy poetry and character dialogues and letters to myself trying to navigate my own brain.
And although no one ever read those chaotic musings, it helped me make sense of what was happening and figure out a way of how to move through it.
Lot’s of great artists and big thinkers suffered mental disorders, and by learning to manage them they produced a lot of good in the world. Political philosopher John Stuart Mill, the founder of neoclassical utilitarianism suffered from a mental break down in his twenties.
Emily Dickinson, the great American poet produced a lot of her work when housebound by various phobias. A more recent example is Billie Eilish, the singer who swept up five Grammy awards in one night for her music which explores themes such as depression and loneliness.
I am not trying to say that anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder are at the root of creativity. The greatest works of art and thought were produced when people were learning to manage their illnesses, not when they were in the depths of despair.
Van Gogh created his world-renowned painting “Starry Night” when he was in recovery, not when he was grappling with paranoia. Mental illness steals a lot of time and energy, leaving people feeling incapable of completing even the most basic tasks.
It’s only through a willingness to explore and work through it that these famous thinkers were able to birth something incredible into existence.
In her book “First We Make The Beast Beautiful” the author Sarah Wilson talks about accepting our struggles with mental health. The book focuses on her own struggles with anxiety and her quest to come to terms with it. She mentions the Chinese proverb:
“Before you conquer the beast you first must make it beautiful”
and explains that by learning to understand the reason behind her anxiety, she made it purposeful and creative. The author talks about how by finding meaning and acceptance in her strife, she can now better tackle it and improve the quality of her life.
“The storms and bleakness and madness count for something. The restlessness will lead to something. These ‘individual moments’ or expressions count.”
Wilson is not suggesting that people abandon conventional therapy in favour of some wayward search for the meaning of life, in fact, she openly talks about her journey with medication and various treatments.
She is, however, saying that by finding acceptance and beauty in her journey with mental health, she can better listen to and understand her anxious quirks. Combining both therapy and self-acceptance has helped her manage her disorder.
Finding beauty in your problems may sound counter-intuitive, it’s so easy to feel like you are somehow broken or strange for struggling with your mental health.
But this mindset doesn’t suggest that you slap on a plaster of positivity onto your depression and get on with your day.
It’s not about romanticizing those issues or simply breezing through every negative experience. It’s not about depression or anxiety making you some unique and mysterious hero.
It’s about acknowledging the strife and holding space for it. It’s about learning to care for yourself and getting help along the way if you need it. That’s where you find that beauty.
We cannot crucify people with mental illness for exploring it through creativity. We cannot dismiss artists like Lana Del Rey or Billie Eilish as simply glamourizing mental health struggles when they’re trying to find comfort and an outlet in their songs.
We can’t say that Kirsty Latoya’s artwork disregards the seriousness of mental health problems because she paints them in a beautiful way. We cannot categorize Sylvia Plath as “ that depressed poet” when that is only one part of her mind that she dives into through her poetry.
Although we have an issue with over romanticizing mental health problems, the story is more complex than we can imagine. People need to realize that just because you relate to a poem about depression on a sad day doesn't mean that you are mentally ill.
You must remember that when you hear a song about anxiety or watch a movie about neurotic disorders that they tell only part of the story and that living through that reality is much harder than those narratives can make it seem.
You can’t blame people for searching for beauty and meaning in their struggles when it helps them get through the day. And creatives have every right to express their issues through art in whatever way they see fit.
It is up to us to consume this kind of art mindfully, to consider that this is only one person’s way of coming to terms with their problems. It’s up to us not to cast some strange romanticized view onto these disorders and acknowledge their complexity.
Collectively we have the responsibility of not reducing art about mental disorders to a #SadDay post on Instagram. Art helps us better understand the lives of those with mental disorders, but in order not to trivialize those issues and stories we must be careful not to take them out of context.