As a millennial in my twenties, a psychotherapist-in-the-making, and an avid therapy-goer, I regularly and enthusiastically consume memes related to mental health and therapy (especially those involving cats).
The kind of anxiety I have is known as “high-functioning.” On the surface, I function well enough in my professional and social lives; I perform well at my job, and I have strong relationships. But what’s happening beneath the surface goes unnoticed. My nocturnal tendencies are worsened by not being able to switch off my brain and fall asleep. I need to plan and prepare excessively because a lack of structure feels unsettling; and adjusting to last-minute changes demands more mental energy than I have to give. I often stay in bed for days and binge-watch shows for hours on the end, even though it makes me feel like a zombie, but at least it’s distracting me from the constant hyperactivity in my brain.
The costs that come with these complexities in my mind are difficult to explain and comprehend. There’s only so many times that you can tell someone what being an anxious person is like without repeating yourself or allowing it to subsume your identity. Moreover, people often feel pressured to make you feel better when responding to you. But, to see my feelings captured so accurately and cleverly in memes has been incredibly validating. They allow me to continually express my struggles through so many different depictions, with the focus being on simply having those challenges acknowledged. Memes haven’t made my anxiety-related symptoms any less arduous, but they have helped me view them in a neutral and accepting way, and feel positively about myself for dealing with anxiety in the first place. None of it is fun to experience, but at least it can be funny and I find comfort in that.
So I began to wonder, what is it about memes that makes them so soothing? Do they help others as much as they help me? Can they also be harmful?
One of the defining features of an internet meme is, of course, humour, which is known to support coping with difficult situations and emotions. However, only some types of humour are adaptive or beneficial:
- Affiliative humour focuses on common experiences and promotes feelings of connection (something generic like, “It turns out being an adult is mostly googling how to do stuff”).
- Self-enhancing humour is laughing at yourself, your shortcomings and circumstances (proclaiming, “Who needs a boyfriend? I have pizza,” after a break-up).
The other forms of humour are mostly detrimental:
- Aggressive humour, that targets others negatively (“Keep rolling your eyes, maybe you’ll find a brain back there”).
- Self-defeating humour, that involves putting yourself down to gain sympathy (something like, “Maybe no one wants to date me because even I don’t want to date me”).
Memes seem to rely on self-enhancing and affiliative humour, but given the liberal use of irony and self-deprecating humour, they sometimes toe the line between self-enhancing and self-defeating. Think of Chandler Bing from the show Friends, who once joked, “What must it be like to not be crippled by fear and self-loathing?”
Memes have made impressive progress in demystifying therapy and clearing up some of the misconceptions surrounding it.
Humour is a dynamic and effective tool of communication, and not only are memes funny, but they are also able to articulate the subtleties of certain struggles in ways that words sometimes fail to. Since they are shared through social media, they allow for a sense of community and connection to be fostered. They highlight how common certain behaviours, thoughts or experiences are — even the unhealthy or unpleasant ones — providing a sense of “at least we’re in it together.” And in choosing to focus on them, memes imply that these behaviours/thoughts are worth examining and questioning — which one might not otherwise do. However, realizing how common tendencies such as avoiding confrontation, or struggling to say no are, might create the impression that those behaviours are acceptable or justifiable and don’t need to be changed.
Memes can also minimize or trivialize a person’s struggles — simply put, some viewers may think that if something is being laughed about, it can’t be that serious or challenging to live with. What potentially balances this out is that memes normalize various facets of mental health. This increases awareness and empathy, and subsequently, decreases stigma. Sure enough, millennials are considered “the therapy generation” and transparency around mental health issues and seeking help has increased. Even so, the average person’s understanding of therapy is limited and misconceptions about it continue to thrive (from “Therapy is for crazy people, to “Do you really need therapy — have you tried yoga?”). Memes have made impressive progress in demystifying therapy and clearing up some of the misconceptions surrounding it.
The coping and social support that memes provide are all the more consequential for socially-oppressed communities. My own mental health is greatly impacted by my identity as a woman and as a person of colour while I was a student in the U.K. for three years. Memes capture this part of my reality as well — for example, how difficult it is to be taken seriously by older men in my family and how that affects my self-esteem; or how difficult it is to keep from feeling insecure when I’m constantly exposed to unrealistic ideals of beauty, like having fair skin. Memes reflect the very real but overlooked intersection between mental health and social justice issues. Those who experience systemic discrimination undergo tremendous psychological and emotional distress, and the prevalence of mental conditions such as depression, anxiety, and trauma is subsequently higher in these populations. Memes afford marginalized folks a medium for self-expression and the ability to see their identities reflected in others.
Mental illness is a complex and serious issue, bringing forth difficult emotions like fear, confusion, shame, inadequacy and hopelessness. Memes provide a respite from that sense of “gloom and doom;” they offer a light-hearted approach that inspires openness and embraces vulnerability. Of course, the gravity of this issue should never be lost, and it is sometimes difficult to remember that just because something is funny, it doesn’t mean it is insignificant or uncomplicated. There is something to be said about a medium that not only lightens the burden of those living with mental health challenges, but also provides insight into those challenges for people on the outside, in an accessible, yet creative way. So the next time you feel guilty about wasting too much time mindlessly scrolling through memes, you can feel a little better knowing that some of them can actually be good for your mental health.
Sneha Rawlani is a psychotherapist-in-the-making, currently pursuing an MA in Counseling at New York University. She has previously worked with children with special needs as a school counselor. Along with mental health, she is also passionate about social justice issues.