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  • Student Journalist

The Allure of the Dark: Aestheticization of Mental Illness

Why is it that some see the beauty in suffering? Can one truly see aesthetics in

something as painful as mental illness? We interviewed two teens and a psychologist

to better understand this phenomenon.

Still from ‘Black Swan’ of Nina hallucinating she is turning into the black swan as she dances, overcoming the challenges she faced with the piece before.

You feel exhausted. You haven’t left your bed in two days, and you haven’t showered in a week. You aren’t motivated to do anything, and you find yourself questioning why you even exist. On the flip side, you could be so anxious you haven’t taken a full breath the whole day. You bounce your leg as you struggle to read even a single paragraph. You can only focus on your heart’s erratic beating. Do you view either of these situations as beautiful? Could you?

Before aiming to understand why it happens, let’s explore what this aestheticization is. It is a term that comprises a lot of ideas about mental illness that romanticize it, i.e. make it seem better than it is.

Firstly, this can be finding humour in this grim matter. This can often be seen in reels or memes on social media apps like Instagram or TikTok. Examples can include trends like “I can’t take my ADHD medication, what if I lose my sparkle?” The sparkle in question is the individual’s mental illness and its impact on their personality. This can also look like ‘dark humour’ or joking about traumatic or painful experiences as a way of coping with them.

Secondly, aestheticization can be seen in art. Books like The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh speak from the perspective of the mentally ill to such an extent that it almost romanticises their experience. This is also true for films and shows like Black Swan and Euphoria. While the media itself may not glorify being mentally ill, individual characters within it who do that could push people in real life to want to be like them.

Now that we have understood what the aestheticization of mental illness is, why do people do it? The teens I talked to have chosen to stay anonymous as they share personal details.

One of the big reasons is “If I can’t fix it, might as well make it seem like not a big thing or make it pretty.” Making light of a situation, especially one that can be as exhausting and controlling as mental illness, can make it appear less terrifying. The teenagers also commented on their peers saying that they too make fun of their struggles “to not give it enough importance to have a great impact in life.” They have rightly identified this romanticization or aestheticization as a means of “coping” with the pain from mental illness. It feels daunting and nearly impossible to ‘fix’ or cure it, at least in a short time, which leaves them thinking they could glorify the experience to make it seem easier to get through.

However, Ms Himani Joshi, a psychologist and now also a teacher of psychology, sees the long-term effects of this coping mechanism as negative. She states that this comes up due to a “limited availability of knowledge.” While it may seem okay “for the time being,” it could cause “harm in the future.”

She shared an anecdote from her time working at a hospital:

A person who was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder (BPD) enjoyed the manic episodes that came with the condition. This, according to her, is common in people with BPD, especially during the early stages where symptoms can go unnoticed since people enjoy this high energy “which is contrary to their usual lifestyle.” While there is “no harm in seeing the positive” side of a situation like this, the aestheticization “letting it (the mental illness) grow” can have “serious implications” in the future.

Another reason the teens believe they romanticise their mental illnesses is due to help, even after the progress we have made in the sector, being inaccessible. Apart from the issue of therapy being very expensive, mental illness is still seen as a “stigma,” which prevents people from healing so they eventually do not have to rely on aestheticization as a tool for coping. Ms Joshi agrees, saying “mental illness should not be a taboo.”

In response to a parallel drawn between physical and mental illnesses, both the teens and Ms Joshi believed that aestheticization of physical illness does not happen as often, since it is “pretty obvious to others,” and treatment is more accessible. One of the teens shared an experience with a mental health professional encouraging them to not tell their friends or teachers of their mental illness since “you will be vulnerable.” The other talked about being asked, “Do you do this for attention?” in response to sharing their struggle with self-harm. Uncomfortable and painful experiences like this make seeking treatment infinitely harder, increasing the likelihood of the long-term impacts of this aestheticization that Ms Joshi has

discussed occurring.

Moreover, the teenagers believe poor media representation of mental illness further propelled these ideas within them, “Media has aestheticized mental illness so so much.” One of the teens said that people their age in shows “have a mental illness but don’t talk about it overtly” making them feel like they’re exaggerating by talking about it. This adds to

the idea of mental illness being portrayed as a cute ‘quirk’ or a personality trait that the

character’s personality is based on. The other discussed movies like Black Swan that romanticise a character falling into psychotic breaks, “having hallucinations and doing self-destructive things” in the pursuit of “perfect.” This shows that even the aestheticization of issues like perfectionism that are not classified as a ‘mental illness’ can be damaging. Ms Joshi too believes that “media should be responsible in reporting sensitive issues” like this.

It can be concluded that a lot of factors come together to encourage people to aestheticize their mental illness. However, what is important to remember is that this is a way for people to cope with their existing mental illness. Therefore, what all of us can do is create a non-judgemental and safe space for people who experience mental illness as well as those who aestheticise it. As Ms Joshi states, the “need of the hour” is to “be more open,” “educate others” about mental illness, and have “acceptance” for everyone.

Written by Jhankaar Purohit

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