All the Things Depression is NOT.

Methods of exposure through literature and social media have led to an overly idealistic romanticism of mental illness and glorification of suicide.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Katherine Kibatullin

Often highly stigmatized and avoided topics, depression and suicide have garnered new attention as modern day media, pop culture, and literature feature individuals suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. While this exposure is certainly effective in dispelling some of the stigma surrounding mental illness, some methods of exposure through literature and social media have led to an overly idealistic, even romantic, perception of these issues.

Instead of depicting the devastating suffering associated with diagnosed depression, depression has become regarded as a “beautiful suffering,” ultimately ending with a “beautiful death” that downplays the severity and ugly nature of the mental illness. Individuals afflicted with depression are similarly idealized; the criss-cross scars on their wrists are symbols of beauty, strength, and vulnerability. They are depicted with a mysterious, cold, and emotionless facade, but are fascinating and “aesthetic” nonetheless.

The idea of “beautiful suffering” is perpetuated by an ever-growing teen culture on social media. Online communities form around depression blogs and posts that portray the emotions associated with mental illnesses. These online communities feature a huge following of teens feeding off each other’s emotions with black and white photos, dark poetry and prose of pain, and quotes of psychological torment. Vivid images of crimson blood seeping through cut wrists, or silhouettes of a tormented but mysterious girl with a single streak of tear down her face, are accompanied by quotes like “Maybe I do wish I were dead,” or, “Sadness comes out at night.”

It is wrong to describe a picture of self-mutilation and psychological struggle as “aesthetic,” but these black and white photos of girls with tears sliding down their cheeks and scars lining their bodies accompanied by a haze of cigarette smoke promote the idea that perhaps those scars are beautiful and mental deterioration can be aesthetic. These photos, combined with moving quotes, add a mysterious allure around the concept of death and portray the bodily scars as tokens of strength, a dark secret, that no one else could ever understand apart from the online community of similarly depressed teens.

Online poetry dealing with self-harm has also helped make pain and depression an art form, attracting thousands of readers by equating the act of cutting oneself to playing a violin or painting on a canvas of flesh. The razor, an instrument of self-harm, becomes a violin’s bow, sliding over skin, likening the beauty of creating music to inflicting physical pain on oneself.

Teen writers dealing with the topic of suicide on social media choose to romanticize death by suicide by taking a philosophical approach: “And that’s why we think death is a part of life. We could be right. But it may also turn out that death is far bigger. Maybe the door leads to something greater.” This quote emphasizes the allure and mystery of death; it depicts a sickening fantasy that death is, perhaps, the road to an intriguing “life” beyond, one that anyone can be a part of if one is willing to let go of one’s current mundane life. To impressionable teens who are most vulnerable to emotional turmoil and instability, the affirmation that self-harm, depression, and death could be anything artistic or the path to something “far bigger” encourages them to welcome dark emotions and believe that life exists in death, art in pain.

Works of literature glorifying suicide and depression are not phenomena unique to the modern era. For instance, one of the most renowned works of literature worldwide, William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” tells the story of two lovers who commit suicide for their love. While the purpose of suicide in Shakespeare’s work was to emphasize the beauty and power of love, it has turned suicide into a tool for achieving forbidden love through the final act of defiance: death.

Most recently, the popular Netflix TV show, “13 Reasons Why,” has also been accused of glorifying the act of suicide. The show revolves around the suicide of Hannah Baker, who releases 13 tapes that detail the reasons why she commits suicide. In each of the 13 tapes, she accuses different individuals of causing events leading up to her death. Although the show has brought more attention and awareness toward depression and aims to prevent issues such as depression from being trivialized, the suicide-tape idea also depicts a dark “revenge suicide fantasy,” implying that one can derive satisfaction from the guilt and horror of their “tormentors.” Alarmingly, statistics from National Post showed that the final suicide scene involving Hannah Baker slitting her wrists had caused a spike in suicide rates as well as suicide method search results in teens after its premiere.

It is important to understand that depression and suicide are neither beautiful nor mysterious, not are they tools to achieve what cannot be achieved alive. Depression is a serious, clinically diagnosed mental health disorder that impairs the way individuals think and function in their everyday lives. Individuals commit suicide not because of any ulterior motives, but because they can not function with the pain and mental deterioration of depression anymore. The romanticization and glorification of depression and suicide leads to the trivialization of these mental disorders by implying that there is beauty in suicide.

In an attempt to identify with the same pain, strength, vulnerability, and yet at the same time, beauty surrounding it all, teens drastically change the idea of depression from a mental illness into a culture of self-pity and try to live up to the standard of “beautiful suffering.” The glorification of suicide feeds a completely different understanding of depression as a mental illness that one cannot help but be continuously afflicted by, versus the everyday “just being depressed” emotions of frustration, anger, or sorrow that tend to last for a limited time period. It is difficult to draw the line between actual clinical depression and the strong emotional instability of an individual who claims to be “depressed.” Although both require emotional counseling and acceptance, it is still important to understand the difference between the two very different conditions to avoid making generalizations or assumptions about mental illness altogether.

We should not trivialize depression or individuals who perceive themselves to be “depressed,” since both involve strong emotional conditions that are overwhelming to deal with alone. Public facilities, such as schools and colleges, should have counselors who are capable of offering help to and acceptance of individuals who cannot deal with the emotional turmoil themselves, whether it is clinical depression or just suffering from overwhelming emotions that have the capacity to become depression, if untreated.

In terms of regulating social media blogs or posts that romanticize suicide, there is very little we can do to prevent the actual glorification from happening, as they are private blogs. However, the topic of glorification of suicide and depression should be made more prominent through media whenever relevant literary works or shows dealing with these topics arise. In knowing and recognizing what glorification of depression is, along with its effects, teens may have a better understanding of their own emotions as well as the true nature of clinical depression to avoid being a victim of the idealistic take on mental illnesses around them.