New research conducted by mentaline.com reveals that approximately 11% of teenagers think mental illness is “fashionable.” Three percent of them have even faked having a mental illness, believing that this would make them “unique,” more like celebrity sufferers, or “just cool.”
Of those teens who’ve faked illness, the most popular choices are:
- Eating disorders – 22%
- Self-harming – 17%
- Addiction – 13%
- Depression – 12%
- Bipolar Disorder– 9%
As someone who’s suffered from both an eating disorder and depression, whose husband has bipolar disorder, and whose sister has overcome self-harming, I’m fascinated by this data. In a way, I can even relate to these kids.
But the funny thing about mental illness is that, while it may look cool or glamorous from the outside, when you’re trapped inside it, it’s the least glamorous thing you could ever imagine.
So why do kids think mental illness is cool? Well, a lot of the problems listed above are addressed in movies and TV shows aimed at teens. In general, though, they’re addressed in a perfunctory way, one in which problems are solved quickly and neatly within an episode or two. (Think Kelly Taylor’s “temporary” addiction to cocaine on 90210, or even Jessie Spano’s one-episode run-in with caffeine pills on Saved by the Bell.)
And even when addiction and mental health issues are treated a little more seriously, love is often held out as a solution to the problem. Remember the 2001 movie Crazy/Beautiful? Described as a “sexy, fun, and energetic story of first love,” it’s about a young woman whose mother committed suicide, and the emotional problems—and eventual breakdown—she experiences as a result.
The end of the film makes it seem as though her reconciliation with her father and the love of her boyfriend solve all Nicole’s problems. From the ending monologue:
There are millions of people out there, but in the end, it all comes down to one. I still panic sometimes, forget to breathe, but I know there’s something beautiful in all my imperfections, a beauty that he [my boyfriend] held up for me to see.
In reality, a young woman dealing with these kinds of issues would almost certainly need more than love to overcome them. For many teenager girls, though, the idea that “love conquers all” is very attractive, so I can definitely see how being “saved” from mental illness by a boyfriend could become a romantic idea.
Or how about Malibu Shores, a short-lived TV series from 1996 starring Keri Russell? I watched that show avidly, because the main character Chloe was, like me, bulimic.
In the show’s finale, Chloe escapes from the hospital where she’s supposed to be recovering from bulimia to run away with her boyfriend. The very last image? The two of them driving off into the sunset.
Again, the idea is that love conquers all, even eating disorders.
I, of course, wanted to replicate this pattern with my college boyfriend. I wanted him to save me from myself. But I learned the hard way that another person’s love or lust would never be enough to give me self-confidence or self-respect. Another person’s love would never save me, cure me, make me whole. I had to do that for myself.
When I first joined my Twelve Step recovery program for food addiction, I remember being pissed off that I was a food addict instead of an alcoholic. There’s nothing glamorous about eating until you can’t stand up straight and then making yourself throw up in gas station bathrooms, particularly when this behavior doesn’t even make you thin.
Alcoholics, I thought, had it way better. To begin with, drinking doesn’t make you fat, and they got to hang around cool bars with their friends.
Of course, my picture of alcoholism was a little skewed. Having seen the reality of my mother-in-law’s alcoholism, I can tell you that there’s nothing glamorous about drinking vodka out of a water glass on Christmas Eve and falling on the floor in front of your children. There’s nothing glamorous about being so drunk that you knock yourself out and land face-down in a pool. There’s nothing glamorous about dying at 58 from liver failure.
For creative kids, I can see how the idea of depression—with its link to great art, great music, and great works of literature—might seem appealing. I can even see how the drama of the mood swings associated with bipolar might seem cool.
Again, though, when you’re actually experiencing these disorders, it doesn’t feel cool or exciting or glamorous. The idea is much more romantic than the reality.
One thing I noticed is that schizophrenia didn’t make the list of the top five faked mental illnesses. Apparently psychosis doesn’t hold much appeal, even for misguided teenagers. The more extreme the symptoms of the illness, I suppose, the less water the fantasy that it’s cool/glamorous/fashionable, and that love can fix it, holds.