Writer Elisabetta Comin considers the dangers of overpathologizing everyday experiences on apps like TikTok and Tumblr.
“Put a finger down if you have a messy room, put a finger down if you keep procrastinating despite feeling anxious about your assignments, put a finger down if you’ve ever cried yourself to sleep…” It’s 1am, I’m once again scrolling through TikTok and, before I know it, I have no fingers left to put down. Apparently, according to the pink-haired stranger staring at me through the screen, that means I have depression, anxiety, or an undiagnosed ADHD disorder.
The rise of TikTok has brought with it a plethora of similar trends that try to make light of what it’s like to have poor mental health, in line with Gen Z’s everlasting commitment to raising awareness about these issues. A lot of TikTok trends, however, risk doing just the opposite: they often present things like “having a messy room” as symptoms of illnesses rather than just potential manifestations of them, often leading to misconceptions and erroneous self-diagnosis. While openly talking about the struggles of mental health is fundamental, where do we draw the line between normalizing these conditions and overpathologizing everyday life experiences?
Writing this article, there’s a part of my brain that recognises a pattern, one that goes straight to the long-forgotten realm of Tumblr. During Tumblr’s glory days, I of course jumped on the sadness train of Arctic Monkeys quotes and black-and-white American Horror Story gifs. For the most part, though, I felt like that blue icon allowed me to simply exist and embrace my teenage angst without the shame often attached to it. But if, in a sense, Tumblr provided me and a lot of people with an opportunity for personal insight and introspection, hardly anyone in our generation is a stranger to how quickly the threads glamorising self-harm and pro-anorexia movements escalated.
Now, I do believe that we have left the Tumblr era with newfound knowledge. But what the TikTok trends can teach us is that perhaps we still haven’t quite gotten rid of a tendency to romanticise mental health conditions. While paying attention to what’s going on in our emotional lives is fundamental, and TikTok is without a doubt a safe space to do so, we shouldn’t present mental illnesses, and the suffering that can accompany them, as something cool, fun and trendy. This is possibly the reason that a lot of everyday life experiences are being treated as symptoms. It is a result of our human desire for connections, to fit into a group, and to avoid missing out on the next trend, even if that trend involves mental health illnesses.
As a consequence of this inclination to overpathologize some human experiences which are entirely normal, even if painful and difficult to go through, a lot of the discourse around mental illnesses on TikTok is so far from the truth that it ends up being more misleading than helpful. By reducing anxiety to things like “feeling awkward around people you don’t know” or depression to “procrastinating instead of doing your assignments”, TikTok often promotes a very unrealistic version of what it means to live with mental illnesses, ignoring the highly debilitating nature of these conditions.
Although joking about mental health issues can be a fun coping mechanism and a cathartic way to exorcise some of our struggles, this shouldn’t promote dubious self-diagnosis. If we choose to engage with or even create similar content, we shouldn’t forget that, for a lot of people, these TikTok trends are the closest thing to a diagnosis that they’re ever going to get. Whether it’s because of the endless NHS waiting lists or because it costs an arm and a leg, therapy is rather inaccessible for a lot of people: not everyone has the possibility to check in with a counsellor and confirm whether their self-diagnosis is correct. This is especially true if we consider a country like the US, where the majority of the TikTok trends come from, and where therapists will charge an average of $90 per session, a fee that reaches as much as $250 if the patient doesn’t have insurance.
With this being said, Gen Z is suffering from mental health conditions at a higher rate than the previous generations. We are forced to deal with the consequences of the climate crisis, and we might be the first generation to never afford a stable home.
What to do, then? Should we just stop making memes and TikToks around this sense of existential sadness and hopelessness which seems to characterise our generation? Should we surrender our only outlet? The answer is no. All it takes is a slight change in the way we describe our feelings. Instead of adopting a language that overpathologizes our emotional experiences, including misusing terms like anxiety and depression, we should develop a more mindful vocabulary, one that is meant to describe our state of mind without pigeon-holing it into a mental health condition where it’s not necessary to do so. Every time we come across one of these TikToks, we should ask ourselves: are we spreading a type of constructive awareness around mental health or one that is just performative?