IN A recent psychology lecture I was giving about the stigma surrounding mental illness I noticed a student with her mouth pursing and brow furrowing. I pointed to her and said “you seem to disagree – do you have an alternative point of view?”
She explained that she was a high school teacher and that in recent years she had noticed rather the opposite going on among the teenage cohort.
“Look I know this isn’t PC but depression among the high school kids … well, it’s kind of like the new ‘in thing’, everyone has it, and if they don’t, they pretend they do to fit in,” she said.
I must admit, I was slightly taken aback. As a mother of four teenagers, I’ve been aware of some of my kids’ friends sharing their dance with depression on Facebook, a behaviour in my youth that would have meant certain social death. In contrast, this now seems to attract a lot of “likes”, sympathetic comments and outpourings of support.
So I asked the lecture group what they thought, and rather than the cries of outrage there were instead a lot of nods, murmurs and a few anecdotal stories to support the teacher’s view.
In the school-outreach teaching I do, I put this idea to a group of Year 12s. They went one step further: “Like, everyone (insert adolescent eye-roll) on Tumblr has depression, it’s ridiculous,” one girl said.
Another girl found it a bit more disconcerting. “It’s really difficult, there’s at least ten of your friends who say they have depression at any time, and you start to … you know, not take it seriously.”
I wonder if adolescents, in their desperation to fit in, are engaging in a new fad driven by the secondary gain of reinforcement on social media?
The problem with this is adolescents appear particularly vulnerable to “peer contagion” in the development of a range of emotional/mental health problems including depression, aggression and eating disorders.
There is also a fine line between talking about one’s problems and an unhealthy dwelling on negative topics, which subsequently increases depressive symptoms.
We also need to be careful in “celeberatising” particular disorders, making them particularly attractive to teens.
I have been disappointed in the well-intentioned but lopsided reporting during mental health week that seemed to paint a picture of mental illness as a perfectly normal (one in two), temporary, curable minor blip on the radar of otherwise successful individuals. There appears to be a censorship in the media last week of those with darker stories that chronicle a lifelong, debilitating battle with mental illness that does not respond well (if at all) to treatment, and causes untold collateral damage to friends and family.
In the noble quest to destigmatise and provide support for those with mental illness, we need to be mindful that our efforts may unintentionally facilitate and even reward mentally ill behaviours in vulnerable groups of people. Minimising the seriousness, and maximising the “normality” of severe mental illness may also prove counterproductive in the long run.
The difficulty lies in finding the right balance.
Rachael Sharman PhD, is psychology course co-ordinator in the School of Social Sciences at the University of the Sunshine Coast
This article first appeared on ‘Courier Mail’ on 14 October 2014.