Social media is often said to have a detrimental impact on mental health.
While all platforms have been found by researchers to have the potential to fuel feelings of envy, inadequacy or low self-esteem, Instagram is often singled out, as it encourages users to present a ‘highlight reel’ of their lives, as one researcher described it.
Other studies have also found that images of attractive peers or celebrities increased feelings of body dissatisfaction in women.
But a relatively new phenomenon on Instagram is a number of accounts that post images that are not aspirational - instead, they focus on those negative feelings and behaviours that often go hand-in-hand with mental health issues - like anxiety attacks or insomnia - and make memes and images based on these.
They’re attracting millions of followers.
"An outlet for humour and anxiety"
My Therapist Says is one of these accounts, and has 2.6 million followers.
Scariest Bug Ever (147,000 followers) and The Dry Ginger (250,000 followers) are similar accounts, and their content deals with everything from anxiety and relationship difficulties to recovery from alcoholism.
“We've been running mytherapistsays for about two and a half years now,” founders Lola Tash and Nicole Argiris tell talkRADIO.
“We wanted an outlet for our humour and anxiety, one that was positive and uplifting. And one that others could find affinity in.
“We've both been in and out of therapy for a majority of our lives, and for a while, it was something that we were not so comfortable speaking about.
“There was, at that time, a stigma attached to it, even though it was basically just talking to someone.
“With MyTherapistSays, we've been able to normalise the conversation around therapy and create a community of people who understand what's it's like to be a little crazy.”
"They make me feel less alone"
For 25-year-old Stephanie Williamson, a freelance writer living in Surrey, these accounts provided a lifeline.
She says she has not been diagnosed with a specific mental health issue, but suspects she has depression, and has been offered medication by a GP.
“Last year I lost my brother suddenly and tragically. I waited six months for bereavement counselling on the NHS, which I found useless. I felt judged, and was mostly left in tears.”
Tragically, Stephanie’s father then passed away.
“I felt unable to talk openly at work about how I was affected by death, grief and depression. I was expected to act like nothing had happened, stiff upper lip and such,” she says.
She left her job to give herself time to work through her grief, and found herself looking often at mental health-related memes on Instagram. She was already aware they existed, having come across them during her time as an art student.
“Mental health memes probably rose to the public consciousness four or five years ago.
“I would routinely find them on my ‘discover’ page as most ‘meme admins’ are also creatives.
“The frank and honest way mental health memes deal with issues is what instantly attracted me to them,” she says.
“They make me feel less alone. They often present the highs and lows of dealing with a mental illness in an incredibly relatable and engaging format.
“I have always had a sense of dark humour, which has become a coping mechanism through troubled times. Memes are an extension of this for me.”
Stephanie also tags her friends in the memes and sends them to her friends. “They are incredibly useful to communicate your difficult feelings, without communicating anything at all,” she adds.
“I think, in some ways, they’ve opened up a broader conversation about dealing with mental health.
“The same can be said for social and political issues, feminism and other topics that are represented in memes for quick, relatable, and shareable content.”
An antidote to aspirational content
Psychologist Emma Kenny has mixed feelings about the memes.
“These accounts can provide a sense of community for sufferers as they’re so shareable,” she says.
“They clearly provide a creative outlet for the creators, some of whom talk openly about their own issues.
“But on the flipside, they could serve to trivialise mental health if people who’ve never suffered see the memes and think they’re something to be laughed off.”
She also thinks they could provide an antidote to the aspirational content that seems to make users feel bad about themselves.
“They could be a socio-political pushback against the wellness and self-care trend, where much of the visual content posted is so aspirational it’s unattainable,” she adds.
Humour helps open discussions
“We don’t consider the memes deflect the severity of the subject,” add Lola and Nicole.
“We actually find that people are more open to discussions and understanding when you can first portray the situation to them in a way they can better understand: through humour.
“Some of the things we cover in our memes have been morbid, but we acknowledge that amidst our own personal traumas, there should always be a light at the end. We think that's the most important aspect.
“When people see the likes and comments saying, ‘wow, this is totally me!’ they don't feel so alone.
“Our goal has always been, and always will be, to instill belief in people who've lost it, whether they lost their way, tragedy struck them, or anything else.
“We want people to know that it's OK to laugh at things you may not understand, that are happening to you, and that you're not alone in it.”
Steph says the memes have, to her, always handled issues sensitively.
“I haven’t ever come across a meme that made me feel worse about my mental health,” she says.
“People usually do that instead.
“The pages I follow would never post about mental health in a way that would alienate their audience.”