There’s a distinctly dystopian aspect to the 2022 choices for “word of the year” by prominent dictionaries, including “gaslighting” from Merriam-Webster, “permacrisis” from The Collins English Dictionary, and, finally, the Oxford English Dictionary, allowing votes from the public, went with “Goblin mode.”
The Memefication of Mental Illness
I was recently interviewed by journalist Laura Pitcher at iD magazine, writing about her theory that 2022 actually seemed to be the “year of rot.” In numerous memes, tweets and Instagram reels, individuals are illustrating their exhaustion and lack of forward momentum though descriptive phrases such as “rotting in bed.” They have also been lamenting their “rotting brain,” suggesting problems caused by the compulsive use of technology interfering with their ability to sustain attention and maintain productivity, not to mention nurture deep and meaningful relationships.
As the number of individuals struggling with anxious thoughts, depressed mood and insomnia increase, it makes sense that there is a parallel increase in voices sharing the difficult experience of modern life. My interpretation of these “rot” memes is that they are an attempt to express how painful and isolating these symptoms can be, lowering our experiences of pleasure, meaning, and connection. Through this expression, then, they may find solidarity and validation in the “likes” and comments of others.
Indeed, artists and creators have historically shared their struggles in various mediums, and through their expressions, have given voice to the much larger community, including those who may feel unsafe sharing such personal information.
Should We All Just Quit Social Media?
Although much has been said about internet trolls and the perpetuation of hate speech, it’s an oversimplification to suggest that all Social media content is bad. In fact, I see humor as an important weapon against apathy and hopelessness, and am encouraged when my patients are able to find something funny even during some of their most painful experiences.
If memes or online humor are able to discuss the challenges of the human condition in an inclusive way, to bring together rather than isolated individuals, they can be a powerful force for relief, increased awareness and eventual change.
Perhaps the answer is in moderation
Because our brains are designed to seek pleasure, that next dopamine hit, social media can also become a problematic behavior. The “brain rotting” of social media fatigue speaks to the short-lived, unsatisfying nature of each picture or video viewed while scrolling. I compare it to candy and other junk food. If you’re really hungry, you are much better off looking for nutrient-rich food, because junk will only satisfy momentarily. The same thing is true for excessive social media consumption.
Importantly, it’s also taking time away from activities more likely to build healthy relationships, engagement and meaning, three key areas shown to improve our sense of well-being.
Certainly, people are experiencing, and sharing, unprecedented levels of psychological distress, whether through memes, tweets, or other creative content. The next step is complex, but I strongly believe in efforts to decrease the stigma of mental illness, limit disinformation about psychiatric disease, and increase access to affordable, high-quality treatment.
How Can Clinicians Help with Solutions?
Clinicians trained in this area need to share our voices and find ways to reach a much broader audience. For me, that has involved interviewing remarkable writers, therapists, and other clinicians on my podcast, as well as contributing evidence-based writing on various platforms and connecting with committed journalists.
Rather than lament the current state of mental health information in the media, we all have the opportunity to contribute in our unique ways. My peers in psychiatry, psychology, social work and marriage and family therapy, we can become leaders in this powerful shift to promoting evidence-based, accurate and practical information via social media. Let’s create a better future together.