BY: LAURA ROJAS
As a teenager, I experienced episodes of depression I can only describe as being frequent. At that age, hormonal levels are fluctuating; life experiences are suddenly becoming a bit more real. The sadness and uncertainty I felt at seventeen mixed with a batch of chemical birth control that just didn’t agree with my system (be weary of Alesse, ladies), created some of the worst episodes I had ever experienced. Fortunately, this became something I was able to overcome and surpass, and not long after, I found a way to make my mind healthy again.
However, mental illness is not always resolved in the way my chemical-induced depression was, and it is very often something that people struggle with for more than just a couple of years. It has the ability to change lives, or end them, its twisted grasp taking hold of a victim’s mind and recklessly strangling it without an ounce of pity. Some people suffer from the age of five until the age of ninety-five, living with an ailment that influences the way you perceive every moment, which is why the trend of dismissing mental illness is so incredibly infuriating.
Although awareness about mental illness as a real disability is finally entering the public discourse, something about the way it is treated in pop culture and mainstream society in general is still amiss.
For an easy example, take the death trap that is Urban Outfitters. Earlier this year, there was media outbreak about a crop-top the company had released, created with fabric that had been stamped with the word “depression” over and over. As a pop-culture giant, Urban Outfitters has a lot of influence over what many consider to be trendy and in style. Many argued that it mocked the severity of mental illness, washing it down to nothing more than a word on a T-shirt that is mass-produced and worn by thousands of girls seeking trendiness. This just goes to complement their “eat less” T-shirt released in 2010 which, once again, mocked and encouraged anorexia as trend, not treating it as the deadly condition that it really is. While I’m on the subject, it might be interesting to mention that Urban Outfitters also sold shot glasses and flasks that resembled prescription pill bottles, disregarding the fact that prescription drug abuse is one of the leading causes of accidental death in the United States. The fact that Urban Outfitters’ major target audience is teenagers can’t be disregarded. This all contributes to the introduction of mental illness as something light and laughable within public discourse. The image of teenagers wearing a “depressed” shirt while drinking vodka out of a faux pill bottle makes me ache.
Language influences perception and mental illness is taken lightly through the common misuse of terminology. The word ‘depressed’ has become a replacement for the expression that something made someone upset, but there’s a big difference between saying, “I failed my test, I’m so depressed” and, “I’m depressed and contemplating self-harm.” The severity of the word is dismissed with the former.
A friend of mine, writer and musician Bea Keeler, has shared a similar experience with mental illness. She says that she believes people who suffer from mental illness may be hesitant to disclose that information to the public for that same reason – “it’s become sort of a nonchalant issue in society now. What I mean by that, is that people use it so freely or use it as a cop out for their actions, like “well, I’m depressed so you can’t be mad at me for treating you poorly.” It can shine a really bad light on mental illness, and those who are suffering from it every day may feel worried that they will be seen as trying to seek attention.”
The attention-seeking stigma behind mental illness is a problem that can induce sufferers to feel shame, creating a positive feedback. There have been times when I’ve been browsing the Internet and stumbled upon Tumblr pages or blogs or simply images people share which show trendy looking kids hashtagging the word depressed or covering their images with sad face emojis or pill bottle stickers, glamorizing what is in no way stylish. When did it become cool to be depressed? Giving mental illness a hipster flair is counter-productivity at its finest and just breeds more uneducated teenagers who don’t understand the severity of the illness, how to recognize it in themselves or others or the process of de-stigmatization in order to achieve better treatment and support from an unbiased public.
Bea brought up the issue of knowledge and lack of education around the issue itself. She said that, “as someone who’s suffered from depression, I’ve had people get frustrated with me because I can’t ‘just be happy.’ And it doesn’t work that way. There’s such a common misconception about how serious these issues are. I’ve noticed young poets/authors in my writing community who are romanticizing suicide because it’s become a popular topic in the literature in our generation. This also doesn’t help the issue of taking theses problems seriously.”
I’m a strong believer in the fact that education has the power to transform almost anything, and the taboo of mental illness isn’t excluded from that. Bea says, “It’s mandatory for sex-ed to be included in high school health classes, but it isn’t for mental illness. If we teach more youth about mental illness, it would help those who are uninformed to accept its severity and to recognize it in others with empathy, but would also help those who may be suffering to feel like they are not alone, and to act on appropriate treatment before the problem escalates.”