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A therapist’s perspective on mental health memes

Social media can negatively affect mental health—but it can also be a place to share mental health experiences and info. We spoke with a therapist to hear her thoughts.

WRITER
Oct 22, 2021 PUBLISHED

The woman in the image below is in overdrive, typing, vacuuming, and posing all at once. She stares both into the camera and away from it, simultaneously grinning and stone-faced.

Colorful, ’70s-style text reads: “I can only complete tasks if the vibes are exactly right. It’s called having ADHD.” 

adhd meme

The image, which may seem absurd—or even rude—to some, is a mental health meme from the popular Instagram page @binchcity, and it’s one of thousands.

**

Social media’s effects on users’ mental health have been the subject of countless and continuing studies. The possible detriments, in particular, are increasingly clear. 

Just last month, representatives of social media giant Facebook found themselves in court once again to discuss how Instagram impacts kids’ mental wellbeing. Social media’s effects on adults can be dire as well—there are even diagnoses hinging on the consequences of overexposure.

Like any powerful thing, though, social media has nuance. Besides its harmful effects, it also helps people connect with art, news, resources, and other meaningful content. 

When it comes to mental health, that content is often in the form of memes.

What are mental health memes? 

Loosely defined, mental health memes are combinations of images and text that relate to various mental health experiences. 

They’ve gained popularity during the prolonged isolation of the past 19 months—something about being locked inside during frightening and unprecedented times increased the demand for mental health content, it seems—and along with their rise has come increased attention. 

Some have pointed out that mental health memes have the potential to leave those who come across them feeling worse than they did before. In June, Eleanor Morgan wrote for Refinery29 about her view that the memes can be harnessed for profit by opportunistic influencers-turned-life-coaches, and trigger those who happen upon them unexpectedly. 

On the other hand, many creators of mental health memes say they began crafting the images as a way of dealing with their own traumas. 

Erin Taylor, the creator behind the Instagram page @atmfiend, told Mashable that creating, sharing, and taking part in the community around mental health memes helps her work through her own mental health struggles. 

But what do mental health professionals think? 

raccoons meme

What do mental health professionals think about mental health memes? 

Mental health professionals, like any other group, don’t all share one monolithic view about anything. That being said, Monarch spoke with Greta MacMillan, licensed clinical social worker, to get her opinion.

“I love mental health memes,” says MacMillan. “I follow so many accounts.” 

MacMillan says that she often shares mental health memes with her clients, and feels they are, “a really good way of getting important information out there to people [...] especially around education.”

Once they’ve taken the step to pursue therapy, people can find the influx of facts overwhelming. They may come away from an hour-long session with their head spinning, uncertain of how to parse and act upon the advice and information they’ve just received. MacMillan feels memes can help distill complicated topics, making them “easier for people to digest.”

“There’s a graphic about setting [...] boundaries,” she uses often, because it’s “super succinct” while still capturing necessary information many of her clients find useful. MacMillan says she sends it out “probably weekly.”

She describes memes’ succinctness as one of the keys to their functionality. Images that can boil down a complex mental health experience can serve as a complement to more comprehensive explanations.

For people happening across them outside a clinical context, they can also serve as a catalyst for the desire to learn more, and even pursue therapy. 

6 things to know for your first therapy session

Two types of mental health memes

There are two basic types of mental health memes, although they often overlap. 

Informational memes

The first is informational memes, which present facts about a disorder, coping strategy, or other piece of mental health information. Often they’re eye-catchingly designed, and use language far more accessible than what you might hear from a therapist, or even while Googling “depression.” 

They might also break down a breathing or visualization exercise, or offer tips for recognizing everything from an unhealthy relationship dynamic to a panic attack. 

“I think it’s really helpful [to] describe a diagnostic label, or describe a set of symptoms,” says MacMillan. The boundary-setting graphic that she shares with her clients falls into this category. 

Humorous memes

The other category of mental health memes is simpler—basically, they’re jokes.

The meme that opens this article uses humor to make a point that, if the number of likes and comments on the photo are any indication, many people with ADHD seem to relate to. 

MacMillan says she often employs dark humor in her own practice, and when grappling with trauma she herself has experienced. In this way, she’s witnessed firsthand how it can serve as a coping and bonding mechanism.

This perspective is shored up by research findings that, “Despite their negative orientation, internet memes related to depression may be beneficial for individuals experiencing consistent symptoms.”

“Using myself as an example,” MacMillan shares, “[when] I was 20-something, and none of this was out there...it would’ve been so helpful to be able to go online and be immediately connected with these people” whose experiences reflected her own.

“You don’t necessarily know the people,” you might meet by interacting with a mental health meme, says MacMillan, “but because of the meme it becomes like a support group.” In addition to spreading information and providing a needed dose of humor, they “help with camaraderie [and] normalize experience[s] for people.” 

She also acknowledges that online conversation can tend to flatten out nuance, and that it’s important to take everything you see online with a grain of salt. Not everyone interacting with a meme may understand or respect the experience it relates to.

Ultimately, though, MacMillan says she “definitely think[s] the benefits outweigh the negatives.”

Can you use mental health memes? 

Although they may not be for everyone, mental health memes can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection. 

According to a recent survey by Pew Research, 13% of households making less than $30,000 annually do not have access to the internet, or to internet-connected devices like tablets, laptops, desktops, and smartphones. 

That being said, free online information and community surrounding mental health awareness is still more accessible than more formal treatment. 

Mental health memes don’t require a prescription, an evaluation, a predictable enough schedule to make recurring appointments, or even the funds to pay for therapy. And that is reasonable, because as it’s important to keep in mind, they’re generally not created by professionals.

Sometimes bullet points and jokes are an easier entry-point to confronting stress and pain than long, serious passages. Certainly, they’re more digestible while scrolling through your feed on Instagram. 

“When I find a meme I like, I use a lot of that in my practice,” says MacMillan, “to throw in something that makes more sense than the whole philosophical discussion I had for an hour with somebody...because it’s just like, ‘bam.” And then people come back, and they’re like, ‘Oh my god, that was so helpful.’”

Article originally published Oct 22, 2021.

Akram, U., Drabble, J., Cau, G., Hershaw, F., Rajenthran, A., Lowe, M., Ellis, J. G. (2020). Exploratory study on the role of emotion regulation in perceived valence, humour, and beneficial use of depressive internet memes in depression. Scientific Reports, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-57953-4   

Vogels, E. A. (2021, June 22). Digital divide persists even as Americans with lower incomes make gains in tech adoption. Retrieved from Pew Research Center website: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/06/22/digital-divide-persists-even-as-americans-with-lower-incomes-make-gains-in-tech-adoption/  

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