The Romanticism of Mental Health in Media Narratives

Don’t confuse discontentment and depression: they’re different

By John Schebece
Staff Culture Critic

Mental Health is, unfortunately, still a novel concept for what we consider a postmodern society. Whereas racial bias, gender bias, religious bias etc. have all been addressed to some degree, remnants of our society’s overall dismissal of the validity of mental illness have evolved (rather than rejected), as our relationship with mental illness has developed. One quote which I think frames these attitudes quite aptly is a tagline from some rapper who was trying to get famous through Facebook, in which he asks, “why is every rapper depressed or fake deep?” (I wish I could cite this but his flash in the pan is likely over). This quote addresses the modern and postmodern romanticism of certain mental illnesses and then dismisses the validity of mental illness in general, simultaneously.

The no-name rapper is most likely citing the recent success of rappers like Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, Mick Jenkins, and others. For some reason the accolades of these more successful rappers are not valid because they are “depressed,” or rather, they are using the romanticization of mental illness to their advantage, at least in this rapper’s eyes. This attitude of dismissal is now heavily prevalent in society due to archetypes like the “different” lil boy seen in film, television, gag-inducing teen short fiction novels, etc.. These archetypes became popular due to a greater societal acceptance of people (particularly men) portraying more emotion in everyday life and the embrace of individuality that came with modernism and postmodernism. Unfortunately, these archetypes played upon a certain, flawed association that we make in contemporary society: that discontent is the same as depression. This is a dangerous, dangerous equivocation, due to the fact that the two can frequently go hand in hand, but certainly aren’t associated with one another.

This terrible trope spawned from studies that demonstrate that more intelligent people are often more depressed than less intelligent people, as well as from countless brilliant authors who were depressed, bipolar, had high anxiety, or committed suicide (Hemingway, Plath, Wallace, Woolf, just to name a few). The association is often hard to refute due to all the brilliant literary minds who take their own lives. To examine the confusion over mental illness, let’s pick apart one of the aforementioned examples of brilliant authors committing suicide, namely, Plath. A wonderful quote from Plath’s The Bell Jar brilliantly depicts depression in a few phrases: “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked…I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.” Here, Plath hits right on the difference between discontentment and depression I’ve been discussing: the ability to see the opportunities around you and feel unable to pursue any of them. Plath realizes that the lives are out there in front of her if she so chooses to pursue them, but she can’t, and turns the errors she perceives about life upon herself.

Enter: the “sad boy” archetype. An evolution of the different/hipster guy, the sad boy is often portrayed as a “misunderstood genius,” who has difficulty relating to others just because he’s so gosh-darn brooding and mysterious. I think we can all agree, this shit is old, stale and frankly, was never all that engaging. These sad boy archetype characters are discontented with the state of things yet never seem to want to work to change them. Unlike Plath’s view, they see things as being unsatisfactory, and see this external factor as being their limitation, rather than feeling like they are the limitation to themselves. Basically, they’re being portrayed as more intelligent because they are sad. Regardless, the sad boy has been successfully promulgated by many people confusing discontent with depression or other mental health issues. People who just walk around discontented with everything, I think we can all agree (even though I myself am one of them quite often), are pretty damn insufferable at times. The reason that these people are so insufferable is because we are associating discontentment and mental illness in a dangerous way.

This is not me—a person with a mental illness— saying that people like me have a monopoly on discontentment. Hell, we should all be a little discontented; it’s one of those facets of doubt or skepticism that keeps us from working in inefficient systems, committing atrocities, etc.. However, this discontentment isn’t something wrong with you; it’s a doubt in humanity that is healthy and should be exhibited as that, a doubt. To wrap this all up as neatly as possible, we need to be able to see mental illness not as something to abuse for one’s own good, nor as something to characterize a person or even to enrich a narrative. Mental illness is a type of affliction on a person just like anything physical, and should be treated and addressed as such.

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