Mental Illness is Abnormal — And That’s Okay

Raina Jain

For as long as there have been sufferers of mental illness, there have been those who demonize them. Though we have moved on from the era of perceiving the mentally ill as morally wrong or devil-possessed, we have entered an era where the term “severely mentally ill” is interchangeable with “dangerous.” Headlines like “Perfectly Sane Man Murders Dozens in Mass Shooting” will never cross our eyes, largely beacause it is easier to justify the acts of violence people are capable of commiting under the excuse of mental illness. Still, this only furthers the dehumanization of those who are mentally ill: only people who have something psychologically wrong could ever commit an act so evil. So inhumane

Through portraying mental illness as something to deal with rather than something to fear, we can theoretically break the stigma which prevents those who are struggling from getting help. In the case of eating disorders, for example, through promoting the idea that eating disorders are not weight-specific and normalizing seeking help, we can break the stigma which prevents many from reaching recovery, thus creating an environment where people feel “okay to be not okay.” The trend of normalizing illness in social media, therefore, should bring an end to the false perception of mental illness as something inherently dangerous and create an environment which encourages recovery.

But what if we went too far?

Mental illness is not rare, by any means, but it’s not really “normal” either. Like any other disease or ailment, mental illness is something that needs consistent treatment and care. Although it is comforting to know that millions of others share your struggles, especially when grappling with a debilitating yet invisible illness, the idea of “normalization” tends to encourage the viewpoint that severe mental illness is okay to suffer with, and is not cause for fear or alarm. The danger in this lies in the idea that those struggling will fail to get help, turning to TikTok and other social media for tips on recovery rather than getting professional treatment. Mental illness is not a death sentence, but it is cause for alarm. Recovery on one’s own is possible, but rarely feasible for those most affected by their illnesses. Some alarm is necessary to wake a person up to their surroundings—to the fact that just because the illness is not physical does not mean that it is not a real concern. 

The novel issue, then, is that mental illness has surpassed normalcy.  TikTok is festering with videos centered around mental illness. Any given comment section user will foam at the mouth at the chance to put on their psychiatrist cap and use their AP Psych knowledge to differentiate between dissociative identity disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. People have become open about sharing their own issues with mental health on the internet, but at the price of sacrificing their own recovery. Tiktok gives us the perfect opportunity to cope in an unhealthy way: take agency over other people’s lives and focus on helping someone else rather than ourselves. 

The recovery movement centers around the concept that every sufferer of mental illness can and will get better, but self-help has begun to promote the idea that not everyone needs to get “better.” It’s okay not to be okay. Perhaps self-medication and a recognition of illness is all one requires. Maybe mental illness truly is normal, something that I can just acknowledge is a part of me, inscribing each diagnosis into my TikTok bio like girl scout badges on a sash.

What this argument fails to grasp is that, common as it is, mental illness is still an illness. When someone has the stomach flu, or a broken leg, grasping the issue at hand is a great first step, but that’s all it is—a first step. Treatment and recovery follow, because while it is okay to be mentally ill, it is far from desirable, by definition. Accepting the abnormality which accompanies mental illness requires viewing it as something to treat, rather than something to accept. Had I, or so many others, tried to delude myself into believing that my symptoms of mental illness were normal behavior, I would be locked in my room, two thousand miles away, afraid to leave my bed. I needed help, and that is normal. My behavior was not. 

Severe mental illness isn’t normal, nor is it something that is treated after learning that others may share your experiences. Worse, the misinformation bred in comment sections on social media posts regarding mental illness has fostered an environment unsuitable for recovery. For those struggling with certain disorders, issues surpass the mental and take an often noticeable physical toll. One of the most prevalent of these disorders is anorexia nervosa, an illness characterized by an obsessive desire to lose weight and competition amongst its sufferers. Those with anorexia feel gratification less from their looks, which are subject to dysmorphia and uncertainty, but from the number on the scale—something that becomes an objective measure of their worth. As someone who has been in recovery, I am open about my struggles—though I am far from proud, I am not afraid to admit that at times, anorexia has come close to defeating me.

Unfortunately, TikTok’s algorithm has figured this out as well. My “for you page” has been taken over by videos where people share their lowest weights, pictures of themselves at their most sick, “ED friendly” eating routines which come far too close to calorie counting, all under the guise of recovery. Anyone educated on the nature of eating disorders can attest to their competitiveness—in severe cases, anorexic patients are not permitted to talk to one another for fear of comparing the thing which almost killed them. 

The people making these videos are not malicious; they are just not recovered. It’s unlikely that anyone who has lost themselves to an eating disorder would desire for anyone else to go through the same, but when in the midst of the illness, it feels like an accomplishment. Seeing the numbers change on the scale felt like winning a race, only the competition was myself. Numbers become the only meaningful thing to a person struggling with a severe eating disorder, and sharing those numbers, even when feigning a sense of sadness or regret, still holds some sick pride. At my most ill, I was happy to know that others were worried about me—they could see the effects of my “accomplishments,” the monster which I had created. Those posting their weights or “body-checking” in the name of “recovery” are not doing so to promote unhealthy eating, they are doing so because it is far more satisfying when others validate the competition you have deluded yourself into thinking you have won. Like children misbehaving as a cry for help, TikTok’s recovery movement has given a platform for those craving assurance to verify that their struggles are real—but the consequences are far more sinister than simple recognition would entail. The normalization of this behavior feeds into the pipeline that social media constructed, telling those most vulnerable that it’s okay to struggle, that so many people have been at lower weights than them, that their behavior is normal. 

It’s okay not to okay, but not in the sense that mentally ill behavior is acceptable. Mental illness is not something which we should use to rationalize criminal behavior, but we shouldn’t pretend as if the danger inherent in illness does not exist. Disorders like anorexia thrive on our demographic: young adults, immersed into a culture of constant comparison and measuring worth through numbers. Advertising one’s deepest struggles on social media does not normalize recovery, it digs the hole of unhealthy coping mechanisms even deeper. Feeding into glamorizing trends only gives more power to the illness which slowly strips you of all control. Our portrayals of mental illness need not be black and white: we can avoid stigmatizing sufferers without romanticizing them. This, however, requires that recovery goes back to being a personal feat. Recovery is one of the few things in life which can be entirely your own journey; keep it that way. In doing so, we can find a middle ground for mental illness: accepting its abnormality, while still rejecting its grasp.

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