In The Office, Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell, enters the frame, does a disastrous somersault on the couch (flinging the wall art and the lamp away), and shouts in his peculiar stance, "Parkour". The meme-fied image of the popular scene from the American hit comedy gets a new meaning with this caption: "My chemically imbalanced brain going from lonely to happy to anxious to depressed to sleepy within 5 minutes." Another popular meme of the surprised Pikachu face points out the irony of someone self-isolating due to stress and then feeling lonely as a result. Tagged #mentalhealthmeme and #anxietymeme, these visuals elicit hundreds and thousands of likes and many comments of people either laughing at them or relating with them or both.
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These are just a couple of examples of many such memes shared on dedicated pages on social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. They communicate mental health concerns or symptoms and lived experiences of something like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder with relevant hashtags in a humorous manner.
A 2020 study in Nature found potential benefits of a more negative style of humour in these "depressive memes" for those experiencing symptoms of depression. The study talked about the affiliative nature of these “negative” humour memes, which means that they can help in forming bonds between those having similar experiences. "Therefore, by sharing and observing depressive memes, depressed individuals may theoretically form social and emotional bonds with others which may be perceived as socially supportive," the authors of the study observed.
"They [these memes] always make us realise that we all are in the same boat and also sort of creates a bonding with the strangest of people," says Garima Gupta. The 23-year-old public relations professional from Noida shares these memes with her peers as well for their relatability and because they "just hit the right nerve." She says that these mental health-related memes may at times help by suggesting that we are in this together and we all can get out of it too.
What are these memes about, and can they help manage mental health?
"A lot of these memes focus on behaviours, thoughts, and emotions. That is the triad that therapy works on; that is the triad that unfortunately depression works on as well," says practising psychologist Hansika Kapoor. Kapoor is also a Research Author at the Department of Psychology at the Monk Prayogshala in Mumbai.
Some of these memes refer to the influx of emotions as in the case of the Parkour meme, while others may remark upon behaviours like self-isolation and negative thoughts about their current situation. These memes do different things—they may build awareness and knowledge of mental health, provide a relatability factor, and even provide a sense of community.
Kapoor explains that mental health-related memes, in particular, have an element of irony or sarcasm in them, and they are often honest about a person's or a situation's limitations. "Where there is a meme that does all of that, there is a kind of engagement with that kind of content to signal to other people that you understand what that meme is conveying or that you just find it funny," adds Kapoor.
Kapoor says that another set of memes try to educate and build awareness about how debilitating common health conditions can be. In this format, some people who have lived that experience (for instance, a meme about staying in bed for a long time after waking up) would instantly identify with it. The relatability can build a sense of community, especially in India, where mental health-related concerns and issues remain taboo and treatments for the same are not available to everyone, she adds.
In the absence of easily accessible literature or information about these concerns and lack of institutional support, these memes and other such content on social media can provide some support.
Kamna Chibber, a clinical psychologist and head of the Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences at Fortis Healthcare, says that mental health and mental health-related illnesses have a lot of seriousness associated with them, which is necessary. But, "when you use a lighter way of communicating about an aspect which can be a loaded aspect, then it allows people to engage with it in a more relaxed manner, without feeling either too threatened or it is too overwhelming for them or something too difficult to understand," says Chibber. She says that it leads to engagement and allows people impacted by mental health issues to talk about this difficult subject with their peer groups. As it can be shared more easily, it can facilitate conversations.
The limitations of memes
The study mentioned above in Nature suggests that these memes visualise the experience of symptoms which is otherwise difficult to verbalise. However, while these mental health-related memes can create engagement about such serious topics and help people relate to others, they have limitations in their format and content.
Many people have called out insensitive memes on suicide and disorders like psychosis and schizophrenia. This was especially apparent recently in the wake of the Netflix documentary series on the Burari case in New Delhi about the deaths of 11 members of the same family.
It is to be noted that some social media platforms also hide posts and create a check on engaging with these memes. “We’ve hidden posts for #mentalhealthmemes to protect our community from content that may encourage behaviour that can cause harm and even lead to death,” reads a disclaimer on Instagram.
Chibber cautions that the humour in these memes may sometimes lead to people not necessarily understanding the gravity of a mental illness and how it has actual ramifications on an individual's quality of life, functionality, and productivity. "While a meme can look nice, feel engaging, and give you some information, but that is not all the information you need to know and understand more fully what the reality actually is."
These memes can also affect someone negatively. When someone finds others laughing at these aspects of mental health, they may feel that their problems and challenges are being trivialised. On the contrary, it may make them feel more disconnected from people around them, explains Chibber.
Both Kapoor and Chibber firmly believe that these memes and the pages that share them need to provide further resources (or links to credible resources put up by mental health professionals and health organisations) on various aspects of mental health. While memes can initiate mental health-related conversations and provide some support to people with similar experiences, at the end of the day, it is simply a cultural product, says Kapoor. "It is created to generate engagement and not to necessarily inform."
Anmol is an independent journalist and writer. They report and write on gender and sexuality, health and wellness, and food and culture, among other things