“She’s coo-coo.” My grandfather said, his index finger orbiting his ear. Whenever he would tell me this, I would laugh and nod my head. The joke never seemed to get old. As a child, I would have laughed at the word coo-coo regardless of the context. As I grew older, however, I realized he reserved this term for my aunt, who always responded with a hearty, resounding laugh.
“Coo-coo” began to take on a darker connotation only when I became an adult, because it always seemed to follow bouts of sickness, during which my aunt would remain in her bed for days. It was no doubt that my grandfather loved his children, he would have done anything for them and even shelled out an exorbitant amount of money for different treatment facilities, but he sternly disapproved of lengthy conversations. If he were to talk, he’d just ask about which numbers were reported for The Numbers Game, or about the impending weather that could alter his plans to do construction on his home. Whenever his daughter’s mental illness had become more pronounced, so did his silence.
There was not shame and it was no secret. All that lingered was a haze of discomfort that lacked a proper outlet. The rest of the family responded in the same way, ensheathed in silence, only to speak when there was a joke to be told.
“You know me, I’m goofy!” My aunt would agree when she finally emerged from the grip of her mental illness and the spotlight shone on her.
It’s a growing trope — the depressed comedian whose alter-ego is their persona on stage. With social media as a platform that elevates the regular person from the funny one of their friend group to an online comedian, there has been a shift in humor itself. The internet can conjure a laugh from even the most mundane pictures or videos. Clever editing or a relatable caption can turn a wholesome picture of an overweight cat to the topic of the year, taking on several reiterations. As the once amorphous tone of internet comedy starts to gain clarity, the most popular memes take on personal undertones, namely of mental health struggles.
Humor has always been about the taboo — from Joan Rivers making raunchy sex jokes to Chris Rock’s opinions about black wealth in America — but it has not seemed to be so explicitly based around mental health as it is today. Pete Davidson, an SNL comedian, has an entire skit based around his mental health and openly broadcasts this on air. Several memes skip over the dark undercurrent of suicide and superimpose a picture for comic relief.
On the contrary, what makes that material for humor? The premise of a joke is based around the taboo. If mental health jokes are decreasing stigma, how are they material for humor? Wouldn’t the issue be so benign to society as a whole that it would not be worth laughing about?
An argument for this is that it lends us an outlet, we have all heard the stories of women being locked away for having impure thoughts and a wandering eye. True emancipation from an illness can only be reached if one is able to speak of it freely without damnation or fear of retribution, yet there seems to be a divide between acceptable and unacceptable mental illness.
After my aunt’s mother died, my grandmother, she had a hard time recuperating. Her attendance at work had milled down to zero days a week, and she would remain in her house for days at a time. Always thin, she withered to gaunt and ghastly, her eyes receding deeply into her skull leaving saucer-sized craters. My aunt was the closest thing I had to a mother, so naturally we shared everything with one another. She echoed to me, faintly, one night that she had visions of her mother at times that caused her to panic. While I was grateful for the transparency, I was disappointed that she would never truly receive the care she needed. Even after speculating that being dishonest about these key elements of her spiraling mental health were possibly fatal she only ever responded, “I only have anxiety.”
Society has not accepted mental illness in the way we like to boast on headlines every time a song is released about thoughts of death or suicide. While every other week a headline comes along applauding someone for opening a conversation on mental health, the conversation stops at depression and anxiety. This is not an open conversation on mental health, it is a conversation on the acceptable forms of mental illness we have labelled safe.
Contemporary movies still display the scary, crazed, villains as schizophrenic maniacs. A majority of movies portray these characters as malicious and dangerous, almost all of them posing a threat to others. A majority of those suffering from schizophrenia are not harmful, and are more likely to end their lives out of their own misery rather than go on a massive killing spree.
Many psychologists have been reporting that there is not a definite effect of humor on mental illness. We still seem unsure if humor can exacerbate mental illness or alleviate it.
Often times the jokes about mental illness have the effect of trivializing the illness and reducing it to a couple of characteristics that are a nuisance, but not the debilitating horrific experiences they truly can be. Thirteen reasons why has been criticized for this portrayal, as it erases the permanence of suicide by having a dead girl live on, and misconstrue an act made of unbearable pain to an act of righteous revenge. As a result, some people find mental illness something people use a “dog ate my homework” excuse for behavior. Rachel L. Pavelko’s study on the #OCD usage on twitter has made the effects of glossing over the serious implications of mental illnesses more lucid: those who trivialized a mental disorder are seen as unlikeable even when they self-identify with having the disorder. This could be due to an array of factors, however it seems that sympathy and understanding does not increase when people discuss mental health using terms that are flippant and non-clinical. The researchers conclude that communication about mental illness must be authentic, not reduced to a simplistic level.
These memes, often times, can have the same effect. Some memes that are relatable about depression are just not funny when they are about a certain disorder. While this is not equitable to most memes about depression or anxiety, 30 million people have an eating disorder, yet websites that focus on eating disorders (even when the intent is not to encourage others) are even liable to be criminalized in countries such as Italy. After signing up for an infamous eating disorder site in order to understand their function, I realized a lot of the content is about sharing experiences or being humorous — much like the content you would see in a meme.
Some people seem to find solace in sharing their troubles, but this may be the same reason why a recovering abuse victim writes a book and others choose to leave that life behind them completely — the same solution cannot be applied to every individual. In a way, these memes open up conversation and shut them down simultaneously. Would someone who is impaired greatly by mental illness really want to correspond with someone who thinks it is something to be joked about?
My aunt, being a generally funny person and able to light up a room with her laugh, never escaped the perceptions that had been cast upon her. After coping with humor for so many years, even when her mental illness declined more than it had before, no one took it seriously — not even her therapists. My aunt’s laugh was often met with a mix of reactions, it was fire-cracker loud and as long as a fireworks show on the Forth of July. Due to this, she appeared perpetually happy because almost any emotion could provoke her outburst of laughter. People who did not even know her could recognize that laugh that often ricocheted, breaking the silence in any room.
After a therapy session that she had attended right after her father’s death, my aunt came from an appointment fuming, “she laughed!”
“What?” I responded, unsure of what she meant.
“She just laughed! I can’t see her anymore.”
It was then when I noticed that any glimmer of hope had been drained from her. Her body moved as if it were made of marble, as if she had given up. Of course, there were thousands of therapists to see in our area, but this had solidified one of her greatest fears. None of this was serious.
It was a joke.