Art by Kusumanjalee Thilakarathna

Sue. Deb. Ana. Cat. They’re just names, right? They could be, but if you look on the growing amount of pages on social media platforms like Instagram and Tumblr, they represent something entirely different. Sue? Stands for suicidal. Deb equals depression, Ana is really anorexia, and Cat is a pet name for cutting yourself.  If you look up something like ‘#anorexic’ or ‘#depressed’, thousands upon thousands of photos pop up. Unfortunately, there are many different kinds to pick from. You could go with black and white Polaroid pictures of stick-thin girls, horrifically scary photos of the results of self harm, or quotes about ‘society’ and how we’re all ‘just suicidal teens.’ It’s a private club—and they’re unknowingly recruiting members.

Someone very close to me—and younger than me in age—recently recited to me a short, four-line poem that she had read online about self-harm. It was quite distressing—how had she found this? She didn’t take any special meaning from it, only asking me excitedly, “Do you get it? Do you get it? She was self-harming!” Her eyes were big and it gave me a strong urge to wrap her up and keep her safe. It was, in fact, not the poem that scared me—it was the fact that she had committed it to memory and talked about it as if it was a magical behavior.  At her age, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as suicide. But now I worry about her—my tiny friend that loves magic and otherworldly creatures—and the fact that she is already discovering it. Her first experience with mental disorders is a poem that paints pretty, albeit disturbing, pictures of a dark, swirling, and vaguely magical world—a world that makes you want to be a part of it. The newest teen fad: what’s your diagnosis?

Some might say that the dramatic posts are just a radical form of venting feelings about mental illness. They are not. There are accounts of people with eating disorders that post pictures with captions like ‘one like for one hour of fasting’ or ‘comment a food and I won’t eat it for a month.’ In the space where one would normally put a name or a description about oneself, people have put the day they last self -harmed, or their goal body weights—and then their ultimate goal weights. 110 pounds. 100 pounds. 90. 85. It’s not a space to vent—it’s a space to prolong your disease. For example, ‘pro-anorexia’ is now a common term for people who support eating disorders and assist others with ‘the lifestyle.’ That alone is the fundamental problem with the whole situation: Mental disorders are diseases. The people that struggle with them daily are sick. This is not a lifestyle.

Romanticizing the mental illness that one has is just another way to avoid dealing with it, and in turn, avoid recovery.  Suicide is defined as ‘the intentional taking of one’s own life.’ There is nothing beautiful or romantic in that, just like there is nothing beautiful or romantic in anorexia nervosa, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, manic depressive disorder, or anything else. They are just that—disorders. Would you romanticize cancer or AIDS? After all, if someone can be ‘pro-anorexia,’ why is nobody ‘pro-HIV?’ Is there a ‘lifestyle’ for Dengue, too? The picture that the strange new attitude paints is that those with these disorders have somehow chosen to have them.
I wish I could say that it is easy to avoid this view on mental illness: just don’t look at the accounts and hashtags. Regrettably, it’s not contained there. I can see it in the people I go to school with. One of my friends only posts pictures taken in a dark room with a flash camera—pictures of her feet, of her back, of her wrists, of her mouth. Never her face. She captions the photos with morbid sentences. The comments below are a mixture of people saying that she’s ‘artsy,’ or asking her if everything is okay and ‘does she need someone to talk to.’ And in the halls at school, the phrases ‘I’m so depressed’ and ‘Can I just die already’ are common. We are creating an atmosphere in which the social norm is to have a disorder. Everybody is depressed. Everybody is anorexic. Everybody cuts. The newest teen fad: what’s your diagnosis?

How do we change this view of mental disorders? We have to show that being depressed or having anxiety or suicidal tendencies is not something that is desired. The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem in the first place. The incorrect relationship between beauty and diseases of the mind is a way to justify the mental disorder. There is no allure in sickness. Sorrow is not a beautiful thing. Pain is not a beautiful thing.  Death is not a beautiful thing.