The Dark Side of Being Open About Mental Health
All names of interviewees who opened up to RICE about their mental illnesses have been changed to protect their privacy.
Since he was 17, Jude would find himself tuning out from everything for intermittent periods of time lasting anything between 3 weeks and 2 months. He doesn’t describe it as sadness or melancholy in the way some do when describing major depressive disorder. Instead, he calls it “a paralysing absence of meaning.”
For hours at a stretch, he would lie in bed staring at the ceiling; awake but his mind a blank, his body robbed of emotions. He would ghost his friends and miss between 2 to 3 meals daily, drifting from one obligation to the next. Apart from his therapist, one other person, and now me, no one knows about his diagnosis. Not even his parents.
Since being prescribed both anti-depressants and mood stabilisers about a year ago, he’s been a lot more present and productive. But getting to this point wasn’t easy.
Liu Jianlin*, a researcher at Singapore’s Institute of Mental Health, tells me that it’s common for patients to take a long time to seek help.
“Stigma is still the number one reason,” he says. “When we think of mental illness in Singapore, most people still think of a crazy person, someone who is shouting or violent. So many are afraid to be associated with such people.”
At its most severe, Jude’s depression has simply prevented him from being as productive as he would like to be. He admits that he’s one of the lucky ones. At the same time, he tells me that as a millennial, the “stigma” he’s dealt with has been slightly different.
“We look at ourselves in the way our peers look at us,” Jude says, “If you’re crazy or weird, at least that’s, you know, real. But with things like depression … being open about it, especially on social media, still looks like a cry for attention. I know more people are more open about their mental health these days, but not me. I can’t do it.”
Back in 2013, The Atlantic published a story describing “beautiful sadness,” a condition where “wannabe depressed” teenagers dramatise their own pain in an effort to be seen as haunted, poetic, mysterious, and misunderstood.
This particular sub-culture has its roots in Tumblr communities, many of which romanticised tortured souls, artistic temperaments, and being broken. Since then, much of the culture around mental health has migrated to social media platforms like Instagram, taking on a noticeably positive sheen.
Early last month, Instagram launched a mental health awareness campaign featuring three individuals, all of whom struggle with mental illness. The video was filled with warm light and soft tones, reflecting the turning tide of mental health narratives: these days, it’s all about recovery communities, openness, and self-care.
In Singapore at least, it appears that this new willingness to be open about one’s mental health remains prevalent only among younger adults, especially those between the ages of 19 to 23. While a lot of this parallels the same growing openness in the West, it’s a kind of vulnerability that many Singaporeans still consider unnatural.
“Maybe it’s just the fact that I was a bit late to this whole social media thing. But honestly, over-sharing online is damn gross la.”
This is Tammy, who is 27 this year and was diagnosed as manic-depressive just over 2 years ago.
“It took about 4 years for me to decide to get help,” she tells me over a hurried cup of Kopi C Siew Dai. She describes how 2011 to 2012 was when teenagers (herself included) all seemed to get introspective at the same time. Perhaps it was just the visibility that Tumblr had created, but all of a sudden, everyone was talking about not being okay.
This was a major part of why she remained in denial about her condition. Because it didn’t look the way she was feeling, she believed that it was all in her head.
Pointing to Instagram accounts like @emotionalclub, she explains that along with what she calls the #goodvibesonly movement, self-deprecative memes have become a new way of trivialising and associating with mental illness.
“I’m not saying I know for sure these kids aren’t depressed or struggling with some kind of anxiety. But come on, if it’s real, go get it checked out right? You write all these captions about being dead inside or how yoga calms your turbulent emotions. Some even self-diagnose. For what? For likes? To look different?”
For Tammy, what’s most frustrating is how such careless language distracts from what having a mental illness is really like. She points out that we throw around terms like “being depressed” or “having OCD” when these are actual diseases that can handicap you.
“To them this might be some attempt at establishing their “cool” identity, but people like me actually deal with this shit everyday,” she concludes.
Later, Jianlin tells me that most of us would have experienced depressive symptoms at some point in our lives. These symptoms, however, exist on a spectrum. Feeling depressed doesn’t mean you have clinical depression. As such, it’s important that you approach a mental health professional for advice if you really need help.
This isn’t to say that medication or psychotherapy are perfect solutions either.
A friend of mine, who has always been open on social media about her depression and bipolar disorder, shared that while it’s important to get diagnosed, she eventually stopped taking medication because it was expensive and hindering her life.
“I always felt like I was in some form of vacuum. I hear everything and feel everything but I take triple the time to respond to anything. I wasn’t much fun,” she said. The flip side of this is that for as long as she can remember, she has always been brushed off for being dramatic, overwhelming, and tiresome.
Jianlin explains that this is why IMH offers supportive therapy: “Psychiatrists prescribe medication, but this is never in isolation. Psychologists in turn provide psychotherapy, so this complements the medication or helps where the medication cannot.”
Eventually, as we stray from our conversation about IMH, we discuss how as human beings, there’s always a desire to look for meaning behind things. If you’ve been through a traumatic event, speculating that you have depression can be a comforting way out because it offers an explanation.
This is possibly why some self-diagnose, because it’s easier and more convenient than taking the time to see a doctor or to deal with the actual problem at hand. As John Mayer sings in Split Screen Sadness, “I can’t wait to figure out what’s wrong with me / So I can say this is the way that I used to be.”
The last person I interview for this story, Samantha, is 28 this year.
“Unfortunately for me, I tick all the boxes,” she says, laughing when I reach her on her mobile, “I like poetry, I like sitting in the dark and plucking out tunes on my guitar, and self-care—or at least the nice things I try to do for myself—is really important. I also cut myself.”
Sam goes on: “A few months ago, there was this influencer who spoke about her own self-harming in an IG post. When I saw the kind of outpouring of love and support she got, I thought, I want that too.”
But this is not who she is, Samantha tells me. She’s always kept to herself, and believes that social media has turned us into “instinctive over-sharers.” This means that we spend less time thinking about whether our thoughts are real, and more time crafting posts reflecting what we think we feel.
She concedes that the prevalence of recovery communities is a good thing, but also says that a lot of the language around self-care emphasises feeling empowered and seeing yourself for the beautiful person that you are—“Which is bullshit. We don’t deserve to be celebrated just for being alive. I’m sick, I need help; I don’t want to be told how strong I am.”
Sam tells me for her at least, she exists between wanting to keep her problems a secret and wanting the people around her to take them seriously. And with platforms like Instagram often emphasising a certain image of what mental health looks like, she and at least one friend have found it hard to confront their own illnesses.
“Because of what happened to me a long time ago and what I still go through now, I know I have a problem,” she says, “But if I seek help, do I become one of these people? When I look at how people online talk about mental health, I question if my feelings are real or if theirs are real and why I don’t share their sentiments. It’s all very confusing.”
She knows it’s not rational, but she doesn’t know how not to be irrational about this.
“Our relationship with social media today is such that it’s really shaped how we see the world and how we see ourselves. I know it’s me, not them. But I really wish that the narratives out there were more representative of mental health experiences. Between the ever grateful folks recovering with yoga and the girls pretending to be jaded, we exist too.”
When I suggest that this doesn’t stop her from going to see a professional, I suddenly feel extremely lame, like yet another voice in her life that doesn’t quite understand that it’s never that simple.
This happens shortly before we both hang up, and after a pause, she says, “Yeah, maybe soon.”
*Jianlin’s views are representative of his own and not of the Institute of Mental Health (Singapore)