For most people, it's hard to speak frankly about the residue mental illness leaves on our lives. Few of us could walk into a room and begin chatting about how anxiety and depression can tint the most mundane social interactions. But throw in a picture of a tiny cat, a Bob's Burger screenshot or Salt Bae himself and you might find feelings flow more freely.
In recent years memes have come to occupy a startlingly large space in public discourse. Pepe found himself tied up with the alt-right movement, Arthur's fist became a symbol of paralysing rage and a cartoon dog engulfed in flames ended up representing our passivity in the face of the Trump shit-storm. But before they made news, they had already begun to play a strangely cathartic role in our own lives.
In a recent Nielsen poll, 24 percent of millennials surveyed reported that they believed their generation's use of technology made them unique among demographics. For comparison, Boomers nominated "work ethic" as their defining characteristic. Similarly 75 percent of Gen Y and Z said technology makes their lives easier, and 54 percent said it make them feel closer to friends and family. At this point, you don't need to be told the internet brings people together — only your grandpa thinks otherwise. But it's worth asking if amid the endlessly churning dialogue about 21st century emotional connectivity, we've overlooked the role the simple meme plays in fostering intimacy. Between the DMs and tags, starter packs and TFWs, they've emerged as a unique language to support our generation's growing mental health dialogue.
Image via @sagittariusmemeadmin
Two things make it easier to speak about difficult subjects: humour and distance — qualities that memes naturally provide. "The interesting thing about memes is that if it doesn't have a watermark, you don't know where it originated," reflects Sebastian Tribbie of Instagram account @youvegotnomale. With 37k followers, Tribbie's fluidity with this new form of communication has seen him make a career out of creating memes for brands. Although he points out that the tendency for large meme accounts to steal the creations of smaller Instagramers means that some people now add their names to their work, he argues this takes away from what a meme should be — "an anonymous subject spread throughout the internet."
17-year-old Julia Nathanson lives in New Jersey and shares her own creations under the name @sagittariusmemeadmin. Since starting her account in January she's already attracted 1.9k followers, her bio reads: "I make memes instead of seeing a therapist which would be funny if it wasn't true." As she approaches the end of high school, memes are a way for her to manage bouts of depression and anxiety. Although she admits she hates talking about her problems, her page has provided an unexpected point of release. "I'll make a meme about something when I'm sure I can't talk about it with anyone else because I've already talked about it too much or it's just too personal or it's a secret," she explained to i-D.
Not having to put her name to her feelings doesn't just make them easier to share publicly, but for her the whole format "feels like someone else is saying it...It softens the blow of regular conversation."
Image via @snakelively
While the disconnect allows for candour, it interestingly doesn't dampen the intimacy as anonymous memes provide a fresh point of connection between strangers online. "Humour is a universal way of connecting to others, and I also think it can sometimes ease the apprehension around bringing up topics that are difficult to be open about," comments Maddie Knight, the admin and brains behind @snakelively. She adds that humour makes it easier for her to touch on intense and tender topics she'd never previously been open about, "especially not in a public way such as social media."
In fact, all the meme creators and admin i-D spoke to reflected on the way this sense of openness allowed them to start or participate in conversations they wouldn't usually ignite. "I feel that my overwhelming and obnoxiously specific memes make an easy connection from one mentally ill person to another," said Knight. "I found that making memes allowed me to discuss my experience with mental illness or the effects of trauma or even just the ugly parts of life and myself that I don't usually display in a way where I wasn't as scared that I would come off as too 'intense' or 'heavy'".
Image via @sagittariusmemeadmin
Comedian, writer and mental health advocate Deirdre Fidge has spent much of her career examining the impact her battle with mental health has had on her life. But when reflecting on her love of memes she notes, "I have chronic depression which isn't exactly hilarious but sometimes memes resonate more than my $200 therapy session." Continuing, "I don't know if it's deeply pathetic or heart-warming that random memes make me feel less alone sometimes, but there you go."
"The difference between memes and other forms of media is that people are constantly reposting memes that they felt strongly connected to," adds Nathanson. She often sees her anonymous works shared on the pages and feeds of strangers, accompanied by captions like "yup" or "me". It's impossible not to feel moved by another person finding expression in your words, and forming an invisible connection with this individual you will never meet or know. For a teenager in New Jersey facing the abyss at the end of high school, it's an unexpected comfort. "Some will think it's silly that people take comfort in memes, but I'm not sure if they understand how lonely it feels to struggle with something you don't think is worth anyone else's time and energy to understand."
Text Wendy Syfret