home Opinion The Romanticisation of Mental Illness: On Campus and Beyond

The Romanticisation of Mental Illness: On Campus and Beyond

‘The National Report on Student Mental Health in Third Level’ launched on the 27 th of
August in Trinity College by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has found a third of
college students are experiencing “extremely severe levels of anxiety” and have had a formal
diagnosis of a mental health difficulty at some point in their lives. Quite notably, the report
also concluded that almost one in four of those affected consider themselves “very unlikely”
to seek help. These numbers are staggering and indicative of a campus culture that still
misunderstands those suffering with poor mental health, despite the gargantuan work that has
gone into de-stigmatising mental illness in this country in the past decade. Campaigns such as
the Cycle Against Suicide and Green Ribbon Campaigns have become household names and
equality legislation has been passed in the Dáil protecting those with mental illness from
employment and consumer discrimination. On our own campus, a Student Mental Health
Policy has been in place since 2010 and Mental Health Weeks occur at least once a semester,
yet students are still reluctant to seek help. Why?

The way we discuss mental illness amongst our peer groups and how we practice self -care
(or don’t) has a huge part to play in exasperating this epidemic. Among my own friends I’ve
seen the downplaying of potentially very serious issues: binge drinking or using drugs as a
coping mechanism, pulling consecutive all-nighters to finish assignments and living off of
energy drinks during exams. I mean, how many times has this happened to you? You’re
sitting with your friends in the lobby of the library near exam time and a conversation breaks
out about how many hours of sleep everyone got last night :“I only got four hours” you say,
while someone else pipes up that they “only got two” and somebody else “didn’t sleep at all”
and so on and so forth. Before you know it, it’s too late, you’ve unwillingly entered yourself
into a competition to be the person who has their shit least together. The most tormented™ in
the friend group.

It seems we’re living in a bubble where unhealthy and damaging habits are not only
normalised but romanticised. We’ve romanticised the notion that you have to give your
absolute all to the course you’re studying, that you’re not a good student or you’re not trying
hard enough if you don’t go at least a little off the rails in the pursuit of good results. Around
exams, especially, it’s trendy to let sleep, socialising and even basic hygiene take a back seat
while we compete against each other to stay the latest in the library, so we have something to
brag about later on. As a generation, achievements gained without a semblance of pain and
suffering are boring to us. This can’t be all our fault though, it had to come from somewhere,
right?

Today, much of the media we consume knowingly or unknowingly romanticises mental
illness. A common trope in movies and TV depicts the mentally ill and damaged person as
profound and wise while the well-adjusted person is ridiculed as boring. Movies like ‘Silver
Linings Playbook’, ‘Girl, interrupted’ and controversial Netflix series ’13 Reasons Why’ all
showcase mental illness as beautifully tragic and desirable. One of my own favourite films,
‘Heathers’ belittles and romanticises both suicide and eating disorders in multiple scenes. The
age-old formula for teen dramas always portrays a girl choosing the dangerous and off the

rails “bad guy” over the boring, put together “good guy” type. This exact narrative plays out
in 2019 Netflix release ‘After’ and countless other films.

But it doesn’t stop there, you can have mental illness romanticised in the palm of your hand
with apps like Tumblr and Instagram fetishizing depression, anxiety and eating disorders.
Tumblr is home to a whole host of mental illness “communities” or “subcultures” which are
saturated with graphic images of cuts, blood, pills and emaciated bodies on weighing scales. I
can’t scroll through my Instagram feed without seeing memes that downplay the severity of
mental illness, joking about depression or suicide. So, it didn’t stem from nowhere. It’s no
wonder we have a warped idea of mental illness, it’s being marketed to us as trendy or cool.
The media we consume has made us numb to the suffering of our peers and even of
ourselves. It convinces us of the lie that serious issues like self-harm, eating disorders and
crippling depression are normal things that everyone must go through.

Popular culture perpetuates this notion of the ‘tortured genius’, someone who prioritises their
work above all else, sacrificing themselves and their mental health in the process. This may
be where you got the idea that it’s cool to spend the night in the library fuelled only by a
Starbucks coffee from the ORB. Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Wolff all
suffered with poor mental health and many believe there to be a correlation between their
artistic success and their mental suffering. Sure, they were all incredibly talented and all
suffered from extremely poor mental health but anyone who has graduated secondary school
can tell you correlation doesn’t equal causation. There’s no basis in science to support the
idea that artistic talent or creativity can be the result of poor mental health. But people have
run with it anyways. Take Vincent Van Gogh, for example, with his famed severed ear and
suicide by gunshot, he is the poster boy of the ‘tortured genius’ myth. Many speculate Van
Gogh’s artwork was a result of his fractured mental state but extensive research into the life
of the artist by author Bernadette Murphy found the artist only actually painted between
breakdowns when he felt stable. Purveyors of the ‘tortured genius’ myth suggest that had he
not been mentally ill we wouldn’t have Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, ‘Starry Night’ or any other
of his ground-breaking masterpieces. People need to get a grip; Van Gogh’s spectacular
works were not because of his mental illness but despite it and if he had received the help that
he needed we’d have much more of them. I like the way professor of psychiatry, Kay
Redfield Jamison puts it; “No one is creative when severely depressed, psychotic or dead”.


These are just some of the harmful ideas we are being bombarded with on an almost daily
basis and have been since we were all quite young. The obsession with mental illness on
Tumblr was in its heyday when I was around 15 years old. It resulted in many girls I know
being utterly consumed with ‘thigh gaps’ and self -harm. Many of whom made it out worse
for wear. Dr Mark Reinecke, chief psychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital says that
during the vulnerable years in which adolescents seek out self-affirmation and recognition
from others this “promise of being recognised as strong, beautiful and mysterious” through
the romanticisation and displaying of mental illness traits can be very tempting. Dr Reinecke
also confirms that being exposed to a constant stream of negativity and romanticised sadness
can only worsen things for adolescents suffering with poor mental health. “When you look at
secular trends and epidemiological research completed over the last several decades, there
seems to be a slow and fairly consistent increase in levels of depression for each succeeding
generation of teenagers,” says Reinecke.

It’s no surprise Irish college students are battling with anxiety and depression. Many students
face financial hardship, commuting for hours a day, overwhelming workload and a lack of
sleep to name but a few. It seems these are the terms and conditions of life as a student in
Ireland. The current student accommodation crisis can force students into commuting from
their home towns, isolating them from the campus and college life in general, or paying
above and beyond what they can afford, putting extreme financial pressure on families or the
individual themselves. Conditions in the available accommodations don’t help the situation.
As a first year I experienced many sleepless nights as the block I lived in practically vibrated
with noise until 4am each night. One of my friends became ill from mould and damp in the
bedroom for which she was paying upwards of 150 euros a week. These circumstances are
grim but we’re not helping ourselves. We pressure each other to conform to an unhealthy
drinking culture, claiming “it’s just not fun if you’re not drunk”, we encourage ‘all-nighters’
instead of getting the work done in a timely fashion and we isolate ourselves around exams,
not asking for help when we need it. I don’t need to tell you how all of this is detrimental to
your mental health. Many college students live wildly imbalanced lives and we need to start
looking after ourselves better.

Stress and anxiety are common feelings to experience in college and a lot of the time, it’s
hard to discern whether you’re experiencing normal levels of anxiety and stress or if what
you’re feeling is indicative of a deeper, more serious problem. When these symptoms are no
longer taken seriously as a possible sign of a diagnosable mental illness but instead are put on
a pedestal or used as a punchline we have a very serious problem. Romanticising and
normalising these feelings only serves to dissuade those in actual and desperate need of help
from seeking it out. Mental illness is serious. It ruins lives. Anyone who has actually suffered
with their mental health will tell you that. Making light of it or normalising symptoms
associated with it is a disservice to anyone truly struggling right now. Profound sorrow does
not make a profound person. People grappling with mental illness are not amazing because of
it but were amazing to begin with and continue to be amazing despite it. So please, be
mindful of what you consume both on social and mainstream media and look after yourself,
especially when you’re feeling down. Get enough sleep. 8 hours. Every night. Go to your
lectures, tutorial, labs , the lot and give yourself plenty of time to get work finished. Take a
night off of the drink every now and then. Eat a vegetable. Go for a run. And please please
talk to someone if you need help.

You can chat via freephone or text with UCC’s free, non-judgemental and confidential
listening service, Niteline, on 1800 32 32 42 every Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday
and Thursday nights from 9pm-1am throughout the academic year.