The “Glamour” of Mental Illness

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.

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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.

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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.

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14 Responses to The “Glamour” of Mental Illness

  1. Gracie says:

    Very well said! As mother to a girl recovery from EDNOS, eating disorder not otherwise specified, there isn’t anything glamour about it. As a daughter to a mother who lived with bi-polar, it can become hell on earth for those living it out.
    I had never stopped to think about how it is glamourized. But it is!
    We still have a long way to go in education. Keep speaking the truth my friend!
    ~b

    • Thanks, Gracie. It’s interesting, isn’t it? One thing I think is particularly interesting about the mental illnesses teens thinks are “fashionable” or cool or whatnot, is that the top three (eating disorders, self-harming, and addiction) all have some element of choice associated with them, at least at the beginning.

      In order to become bulimic, you have to choose to throw up that first time. Same thing for cutting or alcoholism. The underlying tendency might be there, but you have to take an action before you start exhibiting symptoms. This isn’t true of bipolar or schizophrenia, for example, which seems to suggest that the “cool” illnesses are the ones teens think they can control. The problem is, though, that once you start down that road, you lose control pretty quickly, and I don’t think that aspect of these illnesses is communicated properly to teens.

  2. Wouldn’t it be nice if all our problems could be solved in a one-hour episode – or even one SEASON?

    I wonder if the teens who now confess to faking *were* all faking, or some are perhaps now in denial that they had an issue. That in fact, they really are/were mentally ill, but *that* reality was too scary, so now they are saying, oh, no, I was just faking XYZ.

    In a way, I think it’s true that “love can conquer all” if you apply it to SELF love, SELF knowledge, understanding oneself and treating oneself with dignity, respect and kindness.

    Love for oneself may require any number of tools – 12 Step programs(or not), therapy (or not), medication (or not)… but you certainly don’t get very far if you hate yourself.

    • Great point re: self love. You’re right that you’ve got to love yourself—at least a little bit—to keep searching for a solution, even when it feels hard and takes a long time.

      I definitely tried to hide my eating disorder as a teen. I was so ashamed of what I was doing that I was petrified anyone would find out. I might have faked a different illness in an attempt to get attention, but I don’t think I’d have faked the illness I actually had. But who knows? Maybe some kids had a moment of honesty and then freaked out about it and tried to take it back… Very interesting!

  3. mjcache says:

    Really…I’m still wrapping my mind around teenagers thinking that forms of mental illness is cool. Dude. I grew up with a mother who was mentally ill (Bipolar – the highs aren’t fun and the beware the lows) and it was furthest planet from cool: it’s Pluto – cold, isolated and in darkness.

    In the eyes of a teenager being a rational, responsible and well-balanced individual is boring and uncool: not very edgy.

    When you get older you appreciate uncomplicated, boring and unglamorous.

  4. Chaz says:

    Strangely, this does not surprise me. With TV shows like Celebrity Rehab and the glamourization of erratic behaviour by celebrities, plus the hero status some are raised to for coming through it, it does not surprise me that teens, or anyone in our society for that matter, may assume a false mental illness as a method of attention-seeking or some other self-centred motivation.

    Our culture is poised for it and has made it somewhat fashionable. And don’t the teens of any generation gravitate to what is fashionable. My mother, now in her 80’s, started smoking in the 1940s as a teen because movies made it look so cool.

    I agree that it is bothersome to hear of those faking it when some of us know the agony of a real mental illness. For some of us having been driven to dangerous extremes such as suicide ideation or attempts, to think that others presume these conditions that are very real to us to be simply sport to them, is distasteful to say the least.

    But hey… there are very few new things under the sun.

    Ciao.

    Chaz

    • I agree that a lot of celebrities are almost rewarded for selfish, erratic, or addictive behavior. Just look at Charlie Sheen. He’s one of the highest paid actors on TV, but when he drinks, he does things like threaten his wife with a knife, trash a hotel room, and rage at porn stars. And people still love to watch his show! In a way, we, the public, enable his bad behavior. It’s quite sad.

      However, I do think there’s a point at which the public becomes unforgiving—Britney Spears’ breakdown is a good case in point. Once it begins to look like serious mental illness (i.e. bipolar, schizophrenia), it seems as though the public’s tolerance goes way down.

      It’s sad when people fake mental illness, because it just gives fodder to all the people who think mental illness doesn’t really exist, or that you can overcome it with willpower.

      • Chaz says:

        Yes, I hate to see the real issue of real mental illness tainted or invalidated by what amounts to hoaxes.

        Problem is that mental illnesses can be quite subjective in their diagnosis. One can potentially fake them and use them as an excuse for reckless behaviour.

        I know what it is like to wake up daily and have the first thought going through my mind being how it is I could kill myself without hurting anyone else. Hating life but fearing death. For me, it was a combination of anxiety, depression, and bad habits of thought like self-pity. They all wove together to leave me a disaster.

        To say that the anxiety or depression were not real would have been short-sighted. But my self-pity thinking acted as a catalyst to keep them alive. It was a complex thing to unweave. But eventually I got the help to identify each for what they were and address them accordingly.

        I will say this, I in no way would want to fake being where I was. Nor do I care to go there again. Someone faking such things would be complete ignorance to what it is like to be in a state like that. And to invalidate or discredit the notion of mental illness such that it may rob an honest sufferer the opportunity for recovery would be a travesty.

        My mental illnesses were hell. Mental and emotional pain turned to physical pain and physical illness. And mine were not even as bad as many other sufferers.

        This stuff is real, but often hard to pin down, and therefore easy to fake.

        Ciao.

        Chaz

  5. Elizabeth says:

    This is very interesting. I have often wondered why books like “Burned” and the other Ellen Hopkins books are so appealing to teens and I think you’re right. It’s the idea that “love conquers all.” And the “glamor” or mental illness.

    I was a teenager in the 1990’s and I watched 90210 and Saved by The Bell and I remember being angry at the time with how unrealistic they made drug addiction seem (I am the little sister of a drug addict). Remember Dylan’s near death experience with heroin? Then he was all fixed up a few episodes later. Yea, right.

    This was a very insightful and interesting post.

    Thank you,
    Elizabeth-

    • Sorry to hear about your sister, Elizabeth. I hope she’s doing okay now. Yeah, 90210 — definitely not the most realistic show on TV. I really like Intervention because I think it shows the true nature of addiction, and it sure ain’t glamorous!

  6. Elizabeth says:

    Oops… I meant to say it is my brother who is the drug addict. And he is never really doing okay as is the story with most people who are active in their addictions. I also meant to say I like the show Sober House with Dr. Drew because I believe that shows a very realistic picture of the struggles addicts face.

  7. Tracy says:

    Well, this does surprise me. Things are getting so warped out there that one day (maybe that day is already here), when the line between what’s considered normal and what’s not will be so blurred that we won’t be able to tell one from the other with clarity.

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