Loony’s Musings (3): On Romanticising Mental Illness

I saw this post on Tumblr the other day:

Suicidal people are just angels who want to go home.

This troubled me. I’m not usually a troubled person. In fact, I’m a pretty upbeat, sunshine-rainbows-lollipops-chocolate kind of person. Hold onto your seatbelts, blogglings. Things are about to get Capital S Serious. No GIFs today.

Tumblr romanticises a lot of things, and one of those things is mental illness. That quote up there? Yeah, that’s damaging. It’s damaging because if we start talking about suicide as akin to heaven, people start to think that suicide is a good solution. People start to think their scars are beautiful, and that self-harming is a desirable thing.

We need to learn that it’s not the scars that are beautiful – it’s the people.

And this doesn’t just happen on Tumblr. It happens in YA fiction sometimes, too. Authors can make a story beautiful without glorifying self-harm, without making mental illness a beautiful thing, because it’s not. It’s awful, and it affects so many people in terrible ways.

But even if an author sets out to do the exact opposite of romanticising suicide, sometimes quotes are taking the wrong way. Take this one from Looking for Alaska:

“Thomas Edison’s last words were ‘It’s very beautiful over there’. I don’t know where there is, but I believe it’s somewhere, and I hope it’s beautiful.” 

Pudge (the main character) romanticises Alaska in the novel, but in the end this is his “fatal flaw,” as it were, and basically the whole premise of the book is that he mis-imagines her entirely. But people on Tumblr don’t know that. They use these quotes out of context to say that mental illness and suicide are beautiful things. This is what John Green has said:

 “The other attack going viral on Tumblr at the moment is that I write novels about broken people who need saving, and that this encourages the romanticization of brokenness…I write about broken people who need other people in order to go on. But those are the only kind of people I know to exist. We are all broken. We all depend upon each other for support and compassion. That web of interconnected yearning and need is essential to my understanding of human experience, and I don’t find celebrating it problematic.”

You can find the Tumblr post he wrote here.

Which is all well and good if you’ve had as much experience, and are as intelligent as John Green. Who’s to say that some teens won’t cling to the broken people he writes?

There’s also this one:

“If people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.” 

This is what Pudge (again) says about Alaska. He’s basically saying she’s a more interesting person because of how destructive she is, and while John Green may think he made this abundantly clear, that’s clearly not the case when you take a look around Tumblr.

(by the way, if you’re not aware, John Green is my favourite author. I’m just highlighting how easy it can be to take things out of context, and a lot of people have in his case)

Mental illness is not desirable, and it’s not beautiful. Sure, the people are beautiful, and we should be proud of them for fighting every day. But glorifying the illness itself is a million steps in the wrong direction.

YA writers out there, teenagers are strange creatures. We don’t like it when authors are condescending, but for the most part we’re pretty impressionable. Don’t write a character whose mental illness is a quirky personality trait. Don’t write a character whose mental illness can be overcome by having a boy/girlfriend. Don’t write a character who is beautiful because of their brokenness.

Mental illness is a huge issue among teenagers. I am so, so thankful to have my mental and physical health. But others don’t, and we need to portray them accurately.

And if you’re still reading this, thank you for bearing with me. I don’t usually talk about heavy topics like this, but it’s been something on my mind. I’m sure a lot of this isn’t very coherent.

Have a lovely day 🙂

Yours loonily,

Emily.

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14 thoughts on “Loony’s Musings (3): On Romanticising Mental Illness

  1. Eep. Yes, very heavy topic. And I agree that it’s not a good idea to a) take book quotes completely out of context, and b) make self-harm and suicide look angelic. But I do understand that a lot of time authors are trying to normalise mental illness. Things like depression and anxiety…I mean, gosh, they’re very “normal” (if we want to use that totally weird word). HEAPS of people, adults and teens and kids, have these and they’re technically a mental disorder I guess. I always feel like “oh good finally” when I read about teens struggling with those things. It’s definitely NOT okay to “fix” those things with a boy/girlfriend or have them just “grow out of it”. This is such a thought-provoking post! Good stuff! 😉

    • Definitely a heavy topic! Out of character for me (but then again, you’ve read some of The Daisy List. Writing me is different from actual me!).

      I know what you mean about normalising mental illness, and I think that’s definitely a positive thing. Diversity in YA fiction covers so many things, and mental illness is one of those. And for the majority authors treat it with sensitivity. It’s for the exceptions that I’m basically ranting about 😛

      Thanks, Cait! 🙂

  2. You did an very good job of tackling this very heavy and serious issue. Tumblr definitely does romanticize self harm, and I think this is spreading to society today. On tumblr and even a few cases in real life I’ve seen cases of people who thrown around mental illness like its nothing. Like no, just because your boyfriend of 2 weeks broke up with you doesn’t mean you’re depressed. Or, if you’re scared of presenting your project. That doesn’t automatically mean you have anxiety.

    On tumblr specifically I see people glorifying mental illness and promoting it to gain followers. UM WHAT!?

    Using mental illness as something to make your life more interesting is insulting, demeaning and belittling to people who actually have these problems. You’re sending the message that people (and their disorders) are props, are “spices” that can be utilized to make something seem more interesting but they’re not good for anything other than that. It’s dehumanizing, it’s disgusting. Mental illness is serious and you’re only adding to the stigma that clings it.

    Yeah I have a lot of thoughts regarding this issue.

    • Thanks, Larissa!

      Tumblr seems to be a huge part of “alternative” youth culture. And when there’s such a high percentage of people with mental illnesses (or at least self-identifying as having mental illnesses) it just creates a really negative environment sometimes.

      Having anxiety isn’t cute. Having depression doesn’t mean you’re artistic. Why do we have these perceptions?

      I totally agree with you, and thanks for your thoughtful comment 🙂

  3. YES! It’s always bothered me so much when people write things like that. Part of the reason why I love John Green’s books are that he can write about “broken” people without turning them into romanticized objects (with the exception of Alaska, of course, because that was the point of the book.) This is such a great post! I’ve always felt like something was off when I read things online like the quote you shared about comparing suicide to angels, but my thoughts were never fully developed. When these themes of mental illness are written in a beautiful way, it does sound beautiful! And I think that’s why it’s so dangerous. The quotes might be beautiful, the feelings someone else might get from reading the quotes might be beautiful, but experiencing what the quotes are referring to most definitely is NOT. Of course, I’ve always wondered if people do find comfort in those analogies. I never have, but I also know people who seem to feel empowered by them (or perhaps they just cope better when they romanticize themselves?) I don’t understand how other people think, so… I don’t know.

    • I know what you mean about John Green, but even though Alaska is proving the opposite, some people interpret it the wrong way.

      I think people probably do find comfort in those analogies, because it makes THEM feel beautiful? I don’t know. I can only speculate.

  4. I like you taking on heavy topics. And you’re pretty reasonable about it, so please do.
    I have noticed the romanticizing of mental illnesses in some places, but I didn’t really pick it up in John Green’s novels. Now that you’ve pointed how it can be found… it just appears so blatantly obvious. Wow o.o
    I guess, though, that sometimes when authors romanticize ‘broken’ people, they do it so you can see that just because you’ve been through crap or you’ve been scarred by something, that doesn’t make you all that bad. Like it’s not all over, and someone could still like you regardless…? I donno. It’s dangerous because, like you said, it depends on an individual’s perspective.
    But yeah, there has to be a limit. The irony of the first quote you shared is that most people who follow a religion that have a heaven and hell, well, suicide is expressly forbidden… hm.
    Really, really intriguing post – so very eye-opening. Brilliant stuff, keep it up 🙂

    • I’m glad you think so! I try not to be strictly one-way-or-the-other when posting controversial views, because I know there are arguments for both sides.

      I don’t think many people DO pick that up in John Green books – mostly because he’s trying to prove the exact opposite.

      I know what you mean about the reasoning behind it, and it’s a great message that people will still love them regardless of who they are, but I feel like they can do that in other ways? It’s a very complex issue.

      Thanks for commenting 😀

  5. Are you *sure* you’re a real teenager? How did you get to be so wise already, huh?

    Excellent post. Your points are so well thought out, and so clearly reasoned. Mental illness shouldn’t be used as a plot point, or – as you so sensitively point out – as something that can be ‘cured’ by the addition of a boyfriend/girlfriend. Mental illness being dealt with in books for young people is a good thing, because of course some young people suffer from mental illness, but it should be treated realistically, respectfully and with full awareness of the power it can have to damage lives. You don’t ‘have’ to display symptoms of a mental illness to be cute, or kooky, or clever, or artistic.

    I so heart this post. (Do young people still say that they ‘heart’ things, or is that so 2009? I’m never sure. ;)) Thank you for writing it.

    • *checks for reservoirs of angst* Yep, pretty sure 😛

      It’s something I’ve wanted to talk about for a while, and I’ve had lots of amazing people to bounce my ideas off. People make the mistake of thinking that love can cure mental illness – but depression isn’t just sadness, it’s a mental illness. Just like anxiety can’t be cured by “just calming down.” Which is a different point entirely to what I’m trying to make, but hey! I guess I have a lot of opinions 🙂

      As for hearting this post, I have no idea if that’s still cool. I’d have to ask my sister. She’s all up with the Instagram and stuff 😛 (and she may or may not read this comment, I’ve no idea).

  6. Ugh, this absolutely disgusts me. I was on instagram and there was this page with a lot of followers and basically for everylike, she’d go an hour without food or something just to get skinny.

    Brilliant post, Em! <33

  7. This is a really great post, Emily! As a teen who has been diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder, it bothers me when people romanticises it, or turn it into something it’s not. It’s frustrating, too, when I tell people I have anxiety, because I’m never quite sure whether they get it or not–because, let’s face it, every gets a bit of anxiety, when in reality it’s much worse than that. The same goes with depression, I think. Okay, so that’s a bit off-topic, but I get what you’re saying. I’ve seen similar things written on Pinterest, and it’s always bothered me. O.o Anyway, this is definitely a post well worth reading.

    (:

  8. Pingback: What Happened This Week: Reading again, Monologues and Cycling | The Loony Teen Writer

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