Imitation or Illness?

Sarah Mittleman

From Hogwarts houses to Meyers-Briggs to Zodiac signs, personality tests have a universal appeal time and time again. It’s human—specifically, teenage—nature for us to enjoy categorizing ourselves, especially if we’re not yet sure of our identities. There is nothing wrong with introspection, and it’s always fun to be compared to our favorite celebrities, cartoon characters and TV shows. But when the fun internet quizzes run out, it’s not uncommon for teenagers to go searching for other character traits; if you’ve ever searched up “ADHD questionnaire” or “Anxiety quiz,” you probably know what I’m talking about. Mental illnesses have become so heavily glamorized that they are thought of as trivial personality quirks, and the damaging result is a generation of teens desperate to have them.

Regular users of social media will likely have noticed a steady stream of users depicting mental illnesses as desirable traits, a way to make themselves seem more interesting. This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon: TV shows and movies have been doing it for years, and clearly, the strategy works. From clearly sensationalized (like characters with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in TV shows frantically cleaning and screaming at the thought of germs) to faux-deep (i.e. the Netflix original series “13 Reasons Why”), it’s anything but unexpected that teenagers today would think that at the very least, having a mental illness will give them attention, make them seem unique and make them a “main character.”

On Instagram, every once in a while a “tag yourself” post comes up, often with one or more of the possible identities labeled as “the anxious one” or “always depressed.” On TikTok, videos made by people who aren’t licensed professionals list “10 signs you may have ADHD,” and a slew of comments underneath them brag that they have all of the symptoms. It’s too bad that all of this discussion of mental health is entirely superficial; none of these users care to identify what these illnesses truly do and how they affect people every day. Rather, they’re used as side-notes that add charm to a personality. Teenagers are compelled to believe that to be interesting, they must have some sort of mental struggle, one completely based on a series of cliches they’ve found on the internet.

When social media users discuss mental health, it’s often superficial and inaccurate.

When media starts depicting mental illnesses as “cool,” they seem like exclusive, exciting clubs rather than real problems. Belittling and romanticizing are two sides of the same coin; they both end up stigmatizing mental illnesses further. It is factually inaccurate and morally wrong to paint them as shallow quirks when they affect people’s relationships, careers and education. These surface-level stereotypes have created a bizarre desire for diagnoses in perfectly healthy people, and those who actually have them are seen as attention seekers when they come forward. Furthermore, these glamorized symptoms become seen as normal, and when people who suffer from the illnesses don’t only have “cute” symptoms, they still face the stigma.

Some say the issue lies in people who self-diagnose themselves with these disorders. While the reasoning behind this makes sense—that by diagnosing yourself without seeking a psychiatrist first, you can easily fail to distinguish the differences between the real thing and the cliched symptoms scattered all over the internet—it ends up doing more harm than good. Concluding that all self-diagnosis is trivializing mental illnesses is unrealistic. For one, how is somebody supposed to know to go see a psychiatrist if they aren’t even allowed to do research, take note of their struggles and see if their symptoms line up? That’s not all, though; for many, healthcare isn’t easily accessible, and it isn’t economically viable to meet with a psychiatrist who may or may not give a diagnosis. Here’s a good distinction: if somebody on the internet gives themselves the label of “anxiety” just to fit an aesthetic, persona or character type that they admire, has no plans to seek treatment and fits few of the real symptoms, that’s a great example of somebody’s self-diagnosis resulting in further stigmatization of mental illnesses. However, somebody who is simply concerned that they may have a mental illness, does research on it and yet can’t see a doctor for financial or personal reasons doesn’t sound like somebody who’s romanticizing mental illness. Dismissing their experience and blaming them for the stigmatization of mental health problems might make them afraid to admit their struggles and refuse to seek treatment.

Ending the stigma is extremely important. We need to change the way we talk about mental illnesses; rather than depicting them as cute or quirky, let’s address them as real issues that deserve support. Bringing awareness to and normalizing these struggles does help when it’s done effectively. But while you may have good intentions, it’s not a good idea to use mental illnesses as a badge of honor; all that does is glamorize them further.