This article was originally written for Blogosphere Magazine, and examines how anxiety and depression are represented (so very differently) across social media.
Leaning back in his creaking chair, hands clasped together, my GP declared: ‘You’ve got anxiety and depression!’ He announced it as though I’d won a raffle prize – a nice bottle of red or a voucher for the local Indian takeaway. His cheerful diagnosis didn’t come as a surprise. For months I’d been living with crippling anxiety and a gnawing feeling that something in my life was inherently wrong. It was impossible to decipher where one condition began and the other ended. Was my inability to choose an outfit in the morning without tears, the calling card of anxiety? Or was my powerlessness to move from the sofa a telltale sign of depression?
After regular trips to a therapist, I learned, however, that mental health operates only in varying shades of grey. Where anxiety arises, depression is likely to follow – a miserable BOGOF offer brought to you exclusively by your brain. Likewise, those with depression may experience periods of intense anxiety, or other offshoots, such as OCD disorders. Mental health is a veritable tapas of issues and conditions, that rarely arrive as one lone dish. As my therapist told me: ‘depression and anxiety are siblings – there is a familial resemblance’.
I tried to imagine what the family photograph might look like for these two: twitching, sweating anxiety at the front, and lethargic depression, stood closely behind. They were the mental health equivalent of Wednesday Addams and Uncle Fester.
A few years later and I’m now well; the positive result of therapy, medication and lifestyle changes. Living with both ‘siblings’ has not only allowed me to understand their complicated personalities, but has left me sensitive to their representation in the world around me.
As a blogger, this is has been particularly true when it comes to social media. As I’ve followed discussions concerning anxiety and depression across various platforms, one thought has stuck in my mind: if, as medical professionals tell us, anxiety and depression are two sides of one coin – do we treat them as such? Are we blogging, tweeting and instagramming about both in the same way? And what can our representation of anxiety and depression tell us about our own attitudes towards them?
Type into Google ‘anxiety blogs’ and you’ll be met with nearly 2 million more results than ‘depression blogs’. According to Google rankings at least, anxiety receives more coverage than its unhappy sibling. It’s certainly true that over the last few years, the topic of anxiety has become commonplace within our blogosphere – a condition we feel comfortable with.
From Tanya Burr to Lydia Millen; Zoella to Victoria Magrath or Louise Pentland; we’ve learned – and reassured each other – that anxiety can happen to us all. It’s OK to be anxious. Following on from Zoella’s vlogs about her anxiety, she was even made Digital Ambassador for Mind, launching the successful #dontpanicbutton campaign. Suddenly, anxiety was no longer a disturbed and sweating Uncle Fester, but a beautiful, young and relatable woman. A girl with the world at her feet.
This re-representation of anxiety across social media was enormously positive, fuelling a de-stigmatistion process that hinged on the tap of a retweet.
However, depression has lacked the same spotlight. Despite some truly fantastic pieces by Megan Gilbride and Hannah Gale, their stories of depression are fewer and far between. There have been no Digital Ambassadors for depression – no trending hashtag.
A quick look at Instagram reveals over 5 million returns for #anxiety, but just over 1.5 million for #depression. In short, it is less discussed across our social media platforms. But why?
Let’s consider how each is represented. While anxiety is readily discussed across social media, its prevalence has a downside: it’s perhaps not taken seriously. Not long ago, I mentioned a tweet I’d seen, announcing that in order to be a successful blogger, you had to have anxiety. It was a jibe that upset me – one that reduced a legitimate mental health condition into a crude currency, traded for ‘likes.’ Anxiety was apparently simply a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes; everyone was clamouring to claim they had it.
Furthermore, and at the end of 2016, a short, satirical piece was published in The Sunday Times, titled: ‘24 Hours with a Beauty Vlogger’. Throughout the article, sarcastic references were made to the fact that this fictional blogger felt anxious. She mentions being trolled and feeling vulnerable – something she might ‘make a vlog about’ later. I could picture the journalist writing about this ‘anxiety’ with a roll of her eyes.
This response continues to pop-up. One online spat – covered by the national press – claimed Zoella ‘faked’ her own anxiety for an increased following. As one particularly cynical Buzzfeed article quoted: ‘of course, people make you more money when they don’t think they’re being sold. So you sell them a persona. Including telling people how vulnerable you are.’
This downplaying of our attempts to honestly discuss mental health issues, does little to help us de-stigmatise conditions such as anxiety. Far from being scared of discussing it, we’re now being told we’re discussing it too much – exaggerating the condition for our own gain.
The representation and attitude towards depression is markedly different. In a recent Radio 4 interview with Fearne Cotton, she candidly discussed her struggles with depression. However, when asked if she documented her experiences on social media, Fearne replied that she hadn’t. In fact, seeing depression on Instagram would be ‘jarring and strange’, and completely ‘bizarre’. Instagram should instead remain a ‘happy lie’ – a form of escapism not to be tainted by the darkness of depression.
Likewise, in a recent interview with Chrissy Teigen – a woman who confesses to sharing her life on Twitter – she was asked why she hadn’t shared her post-natal depression in her usual candid style. Her response was that she was reluctant to, as the word ‘depression scares a lot of people’. Her choice of words is telling. While anxiety is seen as increasingly innocuous – a silly blogger’s affliction – so depression has remained its scary, darker relative. Depression is something we’re not yet comfortable talking about – and something we remain frightened of.
This reluctance – or fear – of talking about depression, is exacerbated by social media itself. Tumblr, a site filled with 340 million blogs, is recognised as a platform visited for its ‘depression porn’. Here, online communities gather to post images of ‘beautiful suffering’ – images of scarily pale and wistful girls, underpinned by comments about self-harm and hopelessness.
This community is one divided by the clinically depressed and ‘depressed-wannabes’. Just as anxiety became a caricature of itself – something to be cured by smelling salts and a lie down – so depression has undergone a similar process, but in this case bringing out its darkest tones. With social media promoting such a representation of what it means to be depressed – romantic notions of killing yourself, or dark online forums – it’s understandable why so many of us find it difficult to find an honest and relatable depiction to relate to, and open up about.
While anxiety and depression may be family, their representation across social media suggests anything but. Within this world, they’re different species. Of course, while I’ve discussed the extreme representations of both – silly anxiety and unsettlingly dark depression – it’s clear that social media is still yet to strike a balance, able to approach both conditions with equal honesty and understanding.
What’s clear is while we might feel comfortable talking about anxiety, its prevalence has meant that a patronising attitude has emerged, undermining sufferers attempts at honesty. On the other hand, depression remains less discussed; a nervous stigma surrounding it. Because – who wants to be associated with depression porn?
Mental health is nuanced, complicated and an individual experience. It’s unsurprising that its representation of anxiety and depression across social media is therefore complicated. However, our blogs, our tweets and our statuses do at least provide us with a barometer of our progress in accepting mental health issues.
Of course, it’s not yet perfect, but as long as we continue to wave the flag, reminding others that anxiety is more than a fluttering stomach, and depression doesn’t mean we necessarily have a penchant for photos of weeping girls, then we’re on our way. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll be happy to embrace the whole Addams Family of mental illnesses, recognising that while some are scarier than other – some a little more quirky, or some just outright strange – they are, nonetheless, all of the same kin.
We must be brave enough to talk honestly and openly about each and every one, equally.