When Mental Illness Memes Stop Being Funny

Angela Lashbrook on 2020-02-12


Online humor can be therapeutic, but it must be shared in certain ways

Image: wikiHow

“The worst thing I ever did for my mental health was treat my depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation as a relatable meme,” wrote @trashcommunist on Twitter. “Destigmatize these things yes but don’t make light of them, getting help is way cooler than not.”

@trashcommunist’s observation immediately caught my attention. As someone with an anxiety disorder, I’ve often found great joy in anxiety-related memes, which add humor to an experience that can be very painful in the moment. But for the makers and viewers of these memes, these attempts at levity might have a negative effect on their mental health.

There are two differentiating factors between a harmful meme and an innocuous one: disclosure from the person sharing the meme, and the type of humor within it. Decades’ worth of research has shown that generally speaking, humor is very good for people’s mental health—including people with mental illness. One particularly moving study, from 2017, looked at the effect of humor on people with mental illness in a homeless shelter. The study author found that a robust culture of humor brought joy and dignity to the people who lived there. The guests’ jokes were often aimed at the shelter’s more privileged volunteers and employees and were what many people might consider crude or offensive, but they helped level the playing field between the different people at the shelter. They also made it easier for guests and shelter workers to discuss mental illness and other serious issues by opening a door into those conversations and allowing people to address difficult topics like drug addiction, AIDS and HIV, and homelessness without taking them “too seriously.”

A similar study, from 2009, looked at the ways patients (which the study called “consumers”) in a psychiatric hospital used humor and its effect on their illness and experience at the hospital. Typically, humor smoothed the relationship between service providers, like doctors and nurses, and consumers by placing everyone on equal footing. The jokes, which the consumers often made at the expense of service providers, helped the consumers feel a sense of control over their situation, aided them in forging connections with service providers, and provided them with effective coping strategies. (Occasionally, though, the humor backfired: A joke might have been aimed at a particularly punitive service provider who then refused to discharge the patient or labeled them as “problematic.”)

But you don’t have to have a severe mental illness to benefit from having a sense of humor about it. Brittany Curran, an actor based in Los Angeles, says mental health memes had a significant effect on her relationship with her anxiety disorder. Therapy and meditation helped her deal with her triggers, but when her fiancé first made a joke about it, she says, “I’m telling you, that was the moment that broke me free of it forever. That is no exaggeration.”

“Now of course, I still have my general anxiety disorder to deal with every day and different things pop up I’m a little more sensitive about.” She continues, “but when I see a meme that I identify with, it instantly makes me feel lighter.” Memes, Curran says, help her remember that she’s not dealing with an anxiety disorder alone. “It’s healthy to laugh at it. Humor is strength. For me, humor strengthens me while simultaneously making me feel closer to people and making me feel like I’m never alone.”

There’s a key difference between a meme that helps someone with mental illness cope with and laugh at their experiences and one that increases stigma and makes people feel worse. In large part, it’s about how the joke is framed. Researchers have identified four different main humor styles. Each one can affect the person making the joke, and their audience, in distinct ways.

Affiliative humor refers to jokes that people tell to connect with others and make them laugh. Self-enhancing humor is similar: These jokes find the absurdity and joy in dark situations. Aggressive humor, meanwhile, often comes at other people’s expense — think sexist or racist jokes, or teasing someone about something they’re self-conscious about. Then there’s self-defeating humor, which is exactly what you would expect: people telling jokes to make fun of themselves to the point where they’re putting themselves down in an unhealthy way. (To find out what kind of humor style you have, you can take the Humor Style Quiz.)

According to Caleb Warren, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Arizona who has studied humor styles, mental health memes tap into two styles. Some memes, he explains, are clearly self-enhancing humor: “I’m temporarily experiencing anxiety, and by joking about it, that makes me feel better,” he says. But “if I’m making fun of the fact that I’m always an anxious person,” he continues, “that’s more likely to be self-defeating humor.”

Take this anxiety meme, for example:

Credit: onlytwitterpics.tumblr.com

This meme takes a moment in the life of an anxious person and makes light of it. Crucially, it doesn’t suggest that the anxious person is permanently broken or sick; it just points out that they’re experiencing something that, in hindsight, is kind of funny. Contrast it with the below meme:

Credit: @iQuoteComedy on Twitter

What makes this meme different is that it mocks the inherent qualities of the person who made or shared the meme, rather than an experience, moment, or particular expression of anxiety. Asking the question “What’s wrong with you?” and answering with various faults presents the mental illness (anxiety) as a permanent, unalterable flaw — something that is wrong with the person, even if it’s a kind of funny thing.

These kinds of memes can potentially be harmful to viewers. Research shows that people who score high in self-defeating humor are typically more depressed and have lower self-esteem than people who are higher in other forms of humor. A 2016 graduate thesis from Western Carolina University found that participants who used either no humor or self-defeating humor in a stressful situation felt worse than participants who used self-enhancing humor. Self-defeating humor not only was associated with depression and low self-esteem but also showed the potential to actively make people feel worse. This might help explain why memes that frame mental illness as an inherent, permanent state might cause some people, like @trashcommunist, to feel worse about their mental health.

Disclosure is the most important factor.

Kristin Kosyluk, an assistant professor of mental health law and policy at University of South Florida whose research focuses on mental health stigma, is concerned that many of these memes could contribute to stigma against people with mental illness—in large part because they’re often being created and shared by people who do not disclose that they have a mental illness. “My fear is that though the intent is to be helpful, and maybe help people cope with a mental health condition, that these types of memes aren’t going to accomplish that outcome and, in fact, that they could worsen stigma,” she says.

In a listicle of depression memes, “40 memes that might make you laugh if you have crushing depression,” she singled out one example.

Credit: Meme Queen / Tumblr

“The implication there is that people with mental illness aren’t capable of making anything out of their lives,” she says, explaining that this could increase stigma against people with depression as well as what’s known as “self-stigma.” Self-stigma has multiple harmful effects, such as discouraging people from seeking treatment, which could then worsen that person’s mental illness.

However, if the person making or sharing the joke also discloses their own mental illness, it decreases these negative effects.

“Disclosure is the most important factor,” says Patrick Corrigan, a professor of psychology at Illinois Institute of Technology. Corrigan conducted research in 2014 with Kosyluk that compared how jokes about mental illness impacted stigma when the comedian disclosed his mental illness, and when he didn’t. When he did, his jokes decreased stigma, especially among people with an affiliative humor style.

Both Kosyluk and Corrigan compared the experiences of people with mental illness to those of people of other marginalized identities, such as being a person of color or a member of the LGBTQ+ community. When someone in one of those communities makes a joke related to their experience in the community, it’s more acceptable and respectful than a joke made by someone outside the group. These jokes can help decrease stigma because it’s clear that the person telling the joke finds their own lived experience funny. The same can’t be said if the joke-teller is someone on the outside who can’t speak from a place of authority in those topics. These jokes would qualify as aggressive humor in which the comic is effectively “punching down,” making a joke at someone else’s expense.

Memes and jokes about mental illness can be hilarious, healthy, and beneficial to everyone. But if they are framed in an aggressive or self-defeating manner, or shared by a person who hasn’t disclosed their mental illness, they can be as actively harmful and discouraging as @trashcommunist claimed.

So, the next time you’re thinking of sharing a mental health meme, pause and consider the form the joke takes and ask yourself whether you feel comfortable with people knowing your own experience with mental health struggles. If the meme makes light of a particular moment in the life of someone with mental illness, then be free and share! But if it mocks people with mental illness and frames it as something permanent or insurmountable, or if you don’t feel safe disclosing your own experience alongside it, consider keeping your laughter to yourself.