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'We wouldn't be making jokes about heart disease'

A 20-something sees a meme on Facebook, chuckles, and tags their friend.

"Can't have seasonal depression if you're depressed all year 'round," the meme's text reads.

Over the past few years, changes in the Facebook algorithm have led to feeds of most young people being taken over by memes commented on or "liked" by their friends. While many are of no consequence, memes on social media have become a space for the discussion of traditionally touchy subjects, notably: mental health.

The "Depression Memes" page on Facebook has over 550,000 likes. On Instagram, "#depressionmemes" yields close to 200,000 results and accounts by cartoonists like @filthyratbag focus on pictorial humour about life with mental illness.

But is making light of mental health conditions a healthy practice?

Melbourne clinical psychologist Dr Simon Kinsela says the effect of mental health memes "could go either way", drawing a distinction between memes which represent how a person is feeling, and those which speculate how others might feel about them.

"Where it's making light of a person's internal experience, I think those sort of memes are less likely to be damaging because it's more about what that person's experience is, rather than how other people perceive them," he says. "But if it's a meme that implies there's a negative judgement from society, it will be more likely for people to be open about their own mental illness or seek help."

Christine Bagley-Jones, a psychologist in Brisbane, can similarly see both sides of the coin.

"There's one school of thought that says it's overall a positive thing because it opens the channels of communication around a topic that historically has been quite taboo," she says, although it is also important for people to be aware a friend could be "flagging something" with the memes they create, as well as to remember that mental health conditions should be treated sensitively.

"Making light of serious conditions is never a good thing: we wouldn't be making jokes about heart disease."

Over the past decade, initiatives like R U OK? Day have increased society's awareness of mental health. On World Mental Health Day earlier this week, many celebrities took to their social media accounts not just to show support for others with poor mental health, but frequently to share their own experiences. Having a mental illness is barely an embarrassing admission anymore. Mental health has gone mainstream.

"And in that way I kind of do see [the memes] a little bit as a positive sign," says Bagley-Jones. "In the past, people did not want to identify in any way with having a mental illness."

(It should be noted that, while certain mental health conditions – notably anxiety and depression – are openly spoken about, others – like schizophrenia – can still be viewed as taboo, and are rarely given the meme treatment.)

University of Sydney researcher Cherry Baylosis is currently undertaking a PhD on how people with mental illness tell their stories online. She says memes play an important part in young people's experience with this.

"The memes speak to common knowledge and common experiences," she says, adding that she thinks people produce the memes to reach out to a community and have a conversation about their shared experience.

"It's a way of normalising what they're going through and offering comedic relief. Often these memes are created in a narrative of irony."

Baylosis says the tone of the meme affects where it is shared, adding that some people are more comfortable sharing memes about mental health over apps like Facebook messenger, rather than on their Instagram or Facebook feed.

"If it's light humour it can be shared more publicly, but memes that might be perceived as a bit more dark tend to be more private," she says.

Thomas*, a 21-year-old university student, tends to not engage with memes about mental health as publicly as he would memes on other subjects because he is "wary that others who see the post if [he] likes or comments on it might not be as okay with joking about it", despite being comfortable talking about his mental health generally.

Instead, engages with the memes in "closed" Facebook groups (where members must be added by existing members) established for meme sharing. Although these groups are not often created explicitly for sharing memes about mental health, he notes that the groups with a more left-wing membership tend to often include this content.

"In those circumstances, it can be reasonably empowering to know that there are heaps of others in the group who share your struggles," he says, although he is conscious that certain types of memes can be "triggering" to some people who have mental health conditions.

Speaking to young adults who identify as having experienced poor mental health and are often exposed to memes about mental health online, their attitudes towards them are generally positive, although most express the same concern that the memes could be damaging to others.

"They can be good in normalising the experience of ill mental health, but as someone who has suffered from depression I feel the memes can, not necessarily glamourise the experience, but celebrate the suffering instead of promoting the options for getting help," says Jessica*, 24.

Particular concern was shown about memes which joke about suicidal ideation.

"When people are saying, 'might as well kill myself', that annoys me and I don't like it when people like and tag those ones," says Sam*, 25, who has previously been diagnosed with clinical depression.

Although we are speaking about mental health more and more, misinformation about mental health is still a problem. Bagley-Jones takes issue with memes which depict harmful ways of mental illness sufferers treating themselves and others in a positive, or excusatory, tone.

"A problem with these memes is that they can use mental illness to justify poor behaviour," she says, adding that mental illness "shouldn't be used as an excuse to not participate as your best self".

Then there are the concerns that memes can send incorrect messages about symptoms.

"Someone might be saying they are 'depressed', but actually their condition is quite different," speculates Dr Kinsela although he is unsure if there is "enough material in the memes to confuse the issue that much".

Baylosis says her research has found most of these memes are being created by social media users who have received a mental health diagnosis and professional treatment. However, it should still be remembered that, although they might provide a feeling of relief or community, looking at or making memes is no replacement for seeking help for a mental health condition.

"We live in a country where we can access good healthcare and get proper mental health diagnosis," Bagley-Jones says. "People should not forget that."

*Names have been changed

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