Glamourising Mental Illness Doesn’t Help Those Truly Suffering

by : Francesca Donovan on : 10 Oct 2018 17:09

glamourising mental illness WNHDglamourising mental illness WNHD

“Mental health is not a fashion statement. Illness is not a choice.”


These are the words of a teenage boy who is suffering and demands we stop glamourising mental illness.

It’s uncomfortable to think we might live in a world where the media we consume from the Powers That Be has commodified the movement for good mental health to such an extent that mental illness is the new must-have accessory.

Society has long regarded taboos around mental illness as wrong. Safe spaces where sufferers feel comfortable enough to seek help on their road to some form of recovery are becoming more and more prevalent.

Since, some of the one in four Brits with a mental illness have opened up in therapy, at home, in the pub, and the social media spaces where many of us exist nowadays.


All of a sudden it seems so many of us are struggling, and the collective voice of the previously marginalised is louder than ever.

This includes the 10 percent of young people who have grown up being able to put a name to their diagnosable mental health conditions – anxiety, depression, self-harm, eating disorder, suicide ideation.

For the most part, they are no longer to be dismissed as ‘first world problems’ or ‘adolescent angst’.

Although three quarters of those young people are being ‘failed‘ by a government who have yet to guarantee appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age, society at large is looking a little brighter and a little more welcoming to those with mental illness.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (R) and Britain's Health Secretary Jeremy HuntBritain's Prime Minister Theresa May (R) and Britain's Health Secretary Jeremy HuntGetty

We know diagnoses don’t define people, but one young woman thinks the discussions surrounding mental health have been muddied by an innate human desire to seem different, fuelled by narratives which conflate illness with an appealing label.

An alarming 34 per cent of UK teens admitted lying about having a mental illness in the past because it’s fashionable to be sick, according to online therapy service, Mentaline.


Almost half of those who think mental illness is ‘on-trend’ claimed it made people ‘unique’ while 24 per cent said it was ‘cool’ to have an eating disorder, to self-harm, or to have depression.

Man in brxton capMan in brxton capPexels

Kids are learning these falsehoods from somewhere. But where?

Well, we love labels, don’t we? Through years of social conditioning many of us subconsciously try to fit into little boxes marked out to make us recognisable and relatable to others.

Our career, relationship status, body type, skin colour, religion, even our political persuasion are all part of the public packaging we present to the world – more so than ever before now we have social media.

In this proudly progressive time of acceptance and a desire to stand out from the crowds, people look for new labels beyond what it says on their passports to include in their Twitter bios.

Monopolising on this chink in the human condition, we’ve witnessed the rise of wannabe woke brands, ads, TV shows, and individuals who have sought to benefit from the important public discourse surrounding mental illness and, vicariously, the very real suffering of vulnerable young people.

The threat is worse than ever. The so-called iGeneration (or Gen-Z) are growing up in a world millennials wouldn’t have recognised as teens.

With the social media bubble heightening trends, movements and cliques and helping these social behaviours flourish beyond gates of schools and colleges nationwide, kids are exposed to more information – some good, some bad; some responsibly portraying mental illness as serious and potentially life-threatening, some not.


Nowadays, it goes beyond the user-created ‘thinspo’ Tumblr pages set up by unhappy children which started to emerge over a decade ago to trivialise and glamourise self-harm and suicide.

Nicky Fearon, the Head of Student Mental Health and Wellbeing at Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust, told UNILAD that while ‘extreme communities’ are now normalised by the Internet language of memes and GIFs, potentially impressionable young adults now could also encounter harmful online advice and information from places they perceive as an authority.

In other words, the threat is also coming from big business and powerful people in boardrooms who contribute to the conversation for capitalist gain, and are being criticised by an army of young people for glamourising mental illness.

It’s no wonder one young person told UNILAD ‘people fear being left out’ and with one in four young people living with a diagnosed mental illness in the UK today, it’s clear more people than ever are battling their own demons.

Her friend agreed young people are ‘scared to not be involved’ in the mainstream movement for good mental health.

UNILAD asked Dr Arun Chidambaram of Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust if he had medical evidence suggesting mental illness was becoming a fashion statement.

Dubbing the debate part of an ’emerging field’ of thought, he said:

We have to accept what [the young people] are claiming, as it is their world and they know their world better than us. Some of what they say might be perception, but it might be their reality.

Close up of redhead womanClose up of redhead womanPexels

Another young person said she doesn’t believe people ‘mean for mental illness to become a fashion statement’.

It’s a highly empathetic statement echoed by Dr Chidambaram, who confirmed social difficulties can sometimes contribute to young people adopting a different persona – particularly of real and fictional celebrities – when they lack their own identity.

But it’s a difficult debate to have, for fear of undermining the importance of opening up about mental health and representing those with mental illness across all walks of life.

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Fearon chimed in to criticise companies who commodify mental illness:

It is unclear whether commodification affects some groups of people more than others, how this type of marketing interacts with existing vulnerabilities people are experiencing and how they develop over time.

Likewise, there are clearly opportunities to use social media to support wellbeing, reduce risk and offer help to those who need it. Our understanding of this is in its infancy.

Indeed, there are many who still feel they can’t talk openly, particularly those who suffer more marginalised illnesses like antisocial personality disorder, schizophrenia and suicide ideation.

There is more to be done. First, we must unpick decades of stereotyping invisible illness.

All kinds of art which shape how we see the world have romanticised mental illness for years, and used it as a lazy means of categorising mankind’s many different facets of expression.

Likewise, science has been partly responsible.

Studies have been conducted into the correlation between mental illness and creativity – and since the dawn of modern thought we’ve fetishised the work of authors, artists and auteurs who suffer.

Scientifically, it’s a worthy pursuit to understand invisible illness better. Socially, it could send the message that mental illness is aspirational.

It’s not. At best mental illness is an obstacle to overcome in life; at worst, mental illness can end it. Those in positions of power should be careful to make this tragic truth clear, always.

How many times have you seen an exhibition advertised as ‘[insert name here] and his/her madness’; from Van Gogh to Yayoi Kusama, their mental illness and genius are often presented as one and the same thing?

The same can and has happen with musicians.

Member of the 27 club, Amy winehouse, in yellow dressMember of the 27 club, Amy winehouse, in yellow dressGetty

Just take a look at the myth of The 27 Club and how the likes of Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse were hailed for their creativity rather than helped with their mental health, all the while being vilified, sensationalised and profited from in the press.

It’s exhausting and complex and the conflation is everywhere.

Just turn on Netflix.

Annie Hall – arguably the first manic pixie dream girl – was a romanticised neurotic beloved for her ‘quirkiness’, likely caused by generalised anxiety disorder, but whose style of dressing is plastered across Autumn/Winter fashion magazines annually.

Her character traits have also been replicated in other beloved films like Amelie and Garden State, the narratives of which both offer feeble solutions to depression and other neuroses.

Diane Keaton in Annie hallDiane Keaton in Annie hallUnited Artists

Girl, Interrupted – a film which was progressive at the time – portrayed female mental illness as something which fit into neatly packaged pretty Hollywood leading lady, bedraggled but always, always classically beautiful.

Benny and Joon implied Joon’s schizophrenia could be solved by meeting someone equally as unwell. Then we had bi-polar disorder which was cured by the tango in Silver Linings Playbook.

And don’t even start on the conflation of dissociative identity disorder and monstrosity in Split or poop gags in Me, Myself and Irene.

13 Reasons Why13 Reasons WhyNetflix

More recently, the debate centred around the small screen, when 13 Reasons Why was accused of glamourising teen suicide.

As the protagonist, Hannah, took her own life in a ‘very graphic scene of suicide’, she was immaculately made up with a full face of make up and perfectly preened hair.

While some argued the emotional context of the scene was accurate and well-informed, the presentation was selling kids another inaccurate line about the beautiful and the damned.

Moreover, Jenni Regan, the Media Engagement manager at mental health charity, Mind, told UNILAD the portrayal was ‘incredibly damaging’ and could have easily ‘lead to copycat behaviour, particularly in vulnerable people, including young people’.

In pop culture, these conditions are portrayed as less of a serious illness, and more of an interesting personality quirk, albeit for the purposes of entertainment. It works.

But when these lovable characters have mental disorders which play directly into their narratives, audiences can misinterpret the condition and fetishise it in a way which doesn’t reflect the realities of living with it.

‘Sometimes TV shows make characters with mental illness look more interesting’, one young woman agreed, adding it can give some young people the impression a mental disorder is desirable.

Regan described damaging portrayals as relying on ‘outdated and untrue stereotypes such as people with mental health problems being dangerous’, even though people who are unwell are much more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.

Brad Pitt in Fight ClubBrad Pitt in Fight Club20th Century Fox

She added:

Conditions such as schizophrenia are often shown this way, for example, crime dramas in which the killer is known to have this illness and it  is given as the ‘reason’ for the crime.

When done well, however, a Time To Change report published in 2014 found storylines can have a beneficial impact on wider public debate surrounding mental illness.

In fact, 54 per cent of people say their understanding of mental health problems improved by watching a character experience it on television.

A further 48 per cent of people said it helped to change their opinion about the kind of people who can develop these problems. And 31 per cent said it actively inspired them to start a conversation about the storyline with friends, family or colleagues.

Four years on, and the Powers That Be took notice. There are (excellent and warranted) awards for those who portray mental illness effectively on their platforms in the public eye as well as valiant, well-meaning efforts elsewhere.

Mind also run a media advisory service to ‘encourage writers to give reasonable time for characters to become unwell and then get better, avoid over-reliance on medication or sectioning, and to show mental health as being only one part of their lives’.

Sometimes, however, portrayals have become gratuitous, packaged more like a Victorian freak show than a fact of a quarter of lives in the UK.

There’s a fine line between normalisation – the admirable mission to make people with mental illness feel less stigmatised and alone – and glamorisation or commodification.

One young person, who has bi-polar, put it well when she said:

I think the media and companies should educate themselves about mental illness before they try to profit from other people’s suffering.

Furthermore, individuals who prop up pop culture are also becoming increasingly public with their private lives.

Dr Chidambaram was quick to assert how ‘creative expression can help break internal and social barriers’ and avoid minimising the distress of public figures, who all have a right to speak out about mental illness for good.

Carrie Fisher on the red carpetCarrie Fisher on the red carpetGetty

Some would argue celebrities’ honesty about mental health makes kids feel less alone and opens up a debate. A fair point, albeit a bit reductive.

Let’s be honest; there is no real, tangible relationship between public figures and those who follow them online and the conversations about mental illness sparked by famous people are often one-sided.

Dr Chidambaram agreed:

For the average kid, public figures are distant and unreal. But for the vulnerable young ones who are unable to differentiate fantasy and reality, public figures are sometimes as important as family members and sometimes even more than friends and family.

Usually the troubles manifest in adolescence when their world around them is turned upside-down. They might try to simulate particular aspects of the celebrity; like hair style or clothing.

While young kids might feel less alone in hearing their favourite pop star of YouTuber or film star suffers with a mental illness, that knowledge can’t necessarily help cure them of their own.

Indeed, Dr Chidambaram, not wanting to minimise the distress of public figures, adds:

When the rich and famous describe their battle, they do not have financial barriers or other social barriers less privileged young people have to overcome.

They might access a private therapist through a single phone call. Average Joe has to wait in a GP surgery or A&E or get through a referral line and take public transport to go to the treatment centre and pick up their own prescriptions while working through their social anxiety.

Moreover, the mental disorders associated with celebrities are often unique to their highly pressurised lifestyles – anxiety, addiction and low self-esteem.

The conversations tend to focus on the ‘acceptable’ mental illnesses and avoid illnesses stigmatised even by mental health professionals such as schizophrenia and personality disorders, Dr Chidambaram says.

He adds it’s ‘healthier to relate to experiences of similar tribes rather than the rich and famous’.

The kardashians The kardashians PA

When celebrity culture is driven by our desire to emulate, could the imitative instinct extend to the misinterpretation of mental illness or even replication of the symptoms?

As Dr Chidambaram said, it’s an emerging question asked in reaction to the obvious commodification of the movement for good mental health. There aren’t any concrete answers yet.

We simply must listen to those with lived experience of mental illness. Often, sufferers say their mental illnesses make them more compassionate, grateful, empathetic, self-aware and strong in the face of adversity.

But the fact remains: Very few people with a mental illness want to feel unwell. One young man echoed this sentiment, asking why would anyone want something which ‘ruins people’s lives’?

World Mental Health Day Action campaign UNILADWorld Mental Health Day Action campaign UNILAD

Presented by the World Federation of Mental Health, World Mental Health Day is celebrated annually in October. The goal is to help raise mental health awareness.

Talking is often the first step to moving forward. While talking about mental health is vital, UNILAD are calling for action.

We are petitioning the government to improve mental health services offered on the NHS for young people, who sometimes have to wait ten years from the moment they experience their first symptoms to get adequate treatment.

We have written to Jeremy Hunt MP to tell him about our petitionin partnership with WHOLE, which you can help by signing. To find out more about our campaign you can read our manifesto.

If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year.

Their national number is 0800 58 58 58, and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.

Francesca Donovan

A former emo kid who talks too much about 8Chan meme culture, the Kardashian Klan, and how her smartphone is probably killing her. Francesca is a Cardiff University Journalism Masters grad who has done words for BBC, ELLE, The Debrief, DAZED, an art magazine you've never heard of and a feminist zine which never went to print.