I know you’ve heard about it. You’ve seen the memes, you’ve heard the jokes– maybe you’ve made a few jokes yourself. It’s in music. It’s in movies. It’s everywhere, and yet it’s hardly addressed in its full.
I’m talking about a pandemic, one that our generation has been facing long before COVID-19; one that will stick around long after any vaccine…
I’m talking about the state of mental health in America.
This pandemic has undeniably worsened the life quality and optimism of everyone (with the exception of billionaires and big pharma), but even before COVID-19 the prevalence of mental illness was increasing.
Nearly 1 in 5 American adults experience or identify with a mental illness across a vast spectrum of severity.
I can guarantee that if you don’t struggle yourself that you love someone who does.
Something as pervasive as mental illness is indeed seen in pop culture, but what is really being talked about? What is being said? Dark humor is one thing, and everyone has their own way of coping with what they go through. Still, I’m here to hold up a glaring magnifying glass and set fire to every hollow usage of mental illness from here on out. Every Instagram brand that makes quirky and relatable jokes about depression. Everyone who jokingly talks about “killing themselves”. Every E-boy on Tik Tok glorifying suicide. Every single person who knowingly demeans, trivializes, or profits off of the mental health pandemic in our country.
COVID-19 has brought about a health crisis, both physical and mental, so unique to our generation that it’s altered the fabric of culture itself.
I’d like to think that there are benefits to this tragedy, a silver-lining. As quarantine hit, everyone began to share in a collective grief. Everyone could rely on each other. When a friend lamented about being lonely or going stir-crazy, we could say “I understand what it’s like” and mean it. There is such a unique opportunity for empathy and communal support in the rarity of shared tragedy. In a dystopian landscape, humanity has the potential to shine through; as though people finally begin to realize that selflessness is the fuel that keeps the world turning. It’s beautiful to see people coming together to support each other. Now everyone is sad, everyone is struggling.
Suddenly, (most) teachers are being understanding towards their students; more empathetic and flexible with grading. Friends are more likely to check in on each other. The little things in life that have been stolen from us seem all the more important. When we cancel plans, there is no blame thrown. We don’t feel like so much of a social pariah when we miss out on social gatherings. The sadness, the hopelessness, the pain, the fear, the isolation–everyone suddenly “gets it”. It’s become everyone’s problem. A shared grief.
And I’m bitter about it.
Yes, I get how that sounds. The human spirit has triumphed in the wake of tragedy in so many ways, but I still feel like an outsider looking in. I’m not saying I don’t relate to the pain and fear that has befallen everyone, I’m saying that I relate all too well. For years now I’ve related, as well as so many others. Poet Andrea Gibson said it well:
We’ve been here forever, so of course people are frustrated. I’m frustrated.
Mental illness is in the spotlight for now,
but what happens after social “recovery”?
In society, everything is just a fad so long as it doesn’t affect you personally. The AIDS pandemic? Hardly mentioned, even during Pride Month. ALS awareness? Over it. And it’s not just three letter acronyms.
There needs to be some real acknowledgment of those who don’t have the luxury of putting on these trends like a fur coat and then shoving it in the back of their closet as soon as people stop caring.
Even when these topics do trend, it tends to benefit people outside of the targeted “sympathy group” more than those who face these continuous problems. Social construction is what society is built off of, what our relationships to each other are built off of. It’s all so paper-thin, and marginalized people get left on the outskirts. So what I’m asking is, where was this support before COVID? Where was this care? And where will we stand after COVID?
In his 1889 essay “The Decay of Lying”, Oscar Wilde mused that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”. This exact reason is why people who are battling mental illness feel so detached from mental health and self-care cliches. For us, there is no art to be imitated, only life–real life. Mental illness is not pretty. It’s not desirable and it shouldn’t be casually relatable. Especially when there are those who silently fight every damn day.
I’ve been there–countless times. I once opened up to my friend about my anxiety disorder and fear of leaving the house during quarantine. With my heart pounding out of my chest, I took a leap of vulnerability that I rarely feel comfortable doing. “Finally”, I thought, “they can relate to what I go through. It’s okay to talk about this now”. My heart sank as the hours passed with no response. That evening when their response finally came, my heart dropped. “I get it, it’s just not the same when you don’t have the choice to go out”. My heart closed right back up and I kicked myself for even mentioning anything at all. I found myself apologizing to them. “I made them uncomfortable. It’s too heavy to bring up. They don’t need that baggage”. I felt my mental gag tighten once again as I realized that I was a fool for thinking I could be included in this pandemic relatability.
How could I forget? Mental illness is a choice outside of collective grief– without a real reason.
So no, people with ALS weren’t miraculously cured by the end of the ice bucket challenge. Hashtags don’t solve problems or erase pain. People living with mental illness didn’t suddenly appear out of thin air when the pandemic began. We’ve been here, it’s just that nobody cared. It only affects 1 in 5 American adults, so the other 4 don’t have to address it, right? Once the pandemic subsides, I worry that so will this collective care. Panic attacks will be uncreative excuses again. Depression won’t be so quirky anymore. Cancelling plans makes you a flake and missing out on social gatherings makes you a downer.
Mental illness is once again a weakness and a personal failure.
Consider this passage from George Berkeley’s A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, published in 1710:
But, say you, surely there is nothing easier than for me to imagine trees, for instance, in a park, or books existing in a closet, and nobody by to perceive them.
The objects of sense exist only when they are perceived; the trees therefore are in the garden… no longer than while there is somebody by to perceive them.
Such philosophy is aligned with the age-old stigma surrounding mental illness; if your pain and struggle aren’t recognizable by others then they can’t possibly exist. Mental illness, being a complex and personal matter, still comes down to the diagnosis of the public. It simply can’t exist outside of collective space, just like one’s humanity can’t. You can beg and beg someone to see what you’re dealing with; you can beg them to believe you, but outside of shared attention there is no sympathy to be had. My sleepless nights that left me exhausted in class, my inability to focus, the adverse side effects of my medications, even when I broke my collarbone; the pain was mine and nobody else’s. The world kept turning and it’s my fault that I fell behind. I might as well have said the dog ate my homework. And yes, my broken bone got me a semblance of leeway that my mental struggles never have.
So yes, I’m a cynic. Societal attention is so fleeting, too hollow to be meaningful. But hey, at least mental illness makes a good on-screen serial killer, suicide makes a good news blurb, and cute (but psycho) girls are a sexy cultural commodity! The market is saturated and there are real consequences.
Trust me, I want to believe that this cultural shift will pave the way for more openness when it comes to mental illness, but you can’t blame me for doubting it. When everyone suddenly claims mental illness as their own, the line between life-altering struggle and situational hardship/basic human emotion is blurred.
You may say that I’m invalidating others, but no, I’m just validating myself. It seems so simple, but I’ve lived in the shadows of my pain for so long that I’ve become too afraid to talk about it. The phrase “You don’t understand” has become the ultimate insult to others, as though it’s rude to explain that your fight is uniquely yours; to honor the misunderstanding you feel.