Let’s not romanticise mental illness, it is debilitating

When it comes to mental illness, there is nothing to romanticise or joke about, writes Mariam Ali

Mental illness is not something to take lightly. Sammy Dallal / The National
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Although technological advancements have torn down barriers and made it easier for us to communicate and access information, it seems as though social media is taking the wrong turn with respect to mental illnesses. Across multiple social media sites, including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr, I find that people have started to romanticise mental illnesses instead of understanding how debilitating they can be.

The true meaning of depression, anorexia, self-harm and even obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is starting to get lost. I agree that we should be open about mental health but not to the extent of glamourising and even self-diagnosing serious conditions.

According to Dr Talaat Mattar, consultant psychiatrist at the Ministry of Health, about 4 or 5 per cent of the population suffers from clinical depression. Considering the stigma still attached to mental illness, one has to wonder how many cases go untreated.

I often hear people say they are “stressed, depressed, but still well dressed”. Shirts, mugs and iPhone cases are sold with the quote. People throw around the word “depressed” as though it is an emotion rather than a serious illness. Some of the references to depression might be caused by all the books and movies that show how broken girls are put back together by the undying love of a man. Perhaps this drives some people to want to be “broken” in order to be loved. But depression is not beautifully tragic and misinformation is causing people to mistake sadness for depression. Or, as some experts have pointed out, adolescents are increasingly confusing the clinical disorder called depression with everyday challenges.

I conducted a survey to find out whether or not people in the UAE are contributing to the glamourisation of mental illness. It was conducted at the end of 2014, and was answered by people mainly in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The survey consisted of 13 questions. When people were asked what they thought of the quote “stressed, depressed but well dressed”, 173 of 266 respondents said they felt that they could relate to it. As many as 170 thought that a suicide note in the form of a poem was “beautiful”, and 240 said that social media is helping turn depression into a trend.

Eating disorders such as anorexia are also being glamorised by the media. Certain standards have been set for the so-called perfect body. These standards and size-zero models lead people to believe that the skinnier you are, the prettier, and that not eating will bring you closer to happiness. Even though there is some attempt to accept other body sizes, the tendency is to patronise those with a thicker body shape. For example, when America’s Next Top Model accepted a larger woman into the show, throughout the season there were references to her being “bigger”.

It is unfortunate that people don’t understand that anorexia could be a deadly eating disorder. In the survey I conducted, 209 respondents labelled a skinny person as “anorexic”.

In addition to a survey, I also conducted 20 random interviews in Abu Dhabi – 10 women and 10 men in the 17-35 age group. They were asked questions to determine whether they believed that skinny meant beautiful. Seventy per cent of the women and 80 per cent of the men did. Some of the responses were as follows: “Here in the UAE, men look for skinner women to marry, if a woman is fat then she is less likely to find a suitor quickly.” And “fat people don’t have a reason to be fat, there is no such thing as ‘I was born this way’. This is just an excuse that fat people use to convince themselves and others.”

Depression, OCD, anorexia and other mental illnesses are not personality traits that you can add on to the list of things that make you different. They are illnesses that destroy people’s lives. Reducing mental illnesses to idiosyncratic traits helps spread misinformation and drives those in need of help further away from getting it.

Mariam Ali AlMazrouie is a psychology student and founder of Global Humanitarian Aid Foundation