Warning: This post contains mentions of self-harm, suicide, and mental illness.

From an academic standpoint, meme culture is fascinating. I actually took a class on memes in my undergraduate program, and my interest has grown as I continue down the rabbit hole of memes. Memes are not new; think of the strange spread and popularity of the Andre the Giant “OBEY” meme. But in the digital age, memes have become an entirely new animal.

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I remember ten years ago logging onto cheezburger.com every day to see the latest memes and jokes. In the decade since, lolcats and rage memes have given way to a cornucopia of subgenres that suit a wide variety of tastes. The exponential growth of sites like Tumblr have helped fuel this expansion in meme culture, but these sites are not solely responsible. Millennials have also grown and changed over the past decade, and, as they did, so did the online world that was forced to either develop or risk being left behind. Now, meme culture and millennials go hand in hand. But one interesting way that millennials use memes is surprising – they use memes to speak about mental illness in a way that might not otherwise have been possible beforehand.

Millennials and Mental Illness

Mental illness may become one of the greatest health crises of our generation. Millennials are bombarded with jokes and stereotypes about being “special snowflakes” and other condescending terms. The general consensus is that millennials are lazy, entitled, spoiled, and generally unproductive members of society. But the numbers don’t back up those claims. Millennials work incredibly hard, often putting in more hours than previous generations. Many millennials work two or even three jobs just to make ends meet, let alone afford luxuries like houses or cars. On top of that, many millennials are saddled with massive debt which, combined with excessive inflation, leaving them reeling.

I mean, essentially yeah.

So it’s no wonder, really, that millennials are struggling with mental health issues. An oft-quoted statistic states that “the average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s” (Psychology Today).  Of course, this could be the consequence of under-reporting in the past as it was even more taboo back then to speak about mental health. Regardless of the specifics, however, is one simple truth: mental illness is one of the greatest health crises of our generation.

As these kids age out of high school and into college, things don’t get better. A survey by the American College Health Association in 2014 found that nearly a third of students (32.6%) “felt so depressed it was difficult to function” within the previous 12 months. Even more students – over half (54%) – “felt overwhelming anxiety.” More disturbingly, 8.1% of survey respondents had “seriously considered suicide,” 6.4% had “intentionally cut, burned, bruised, or otherwise injured” themselves, and 1.3% had actually attempted suicide.

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Those numbers might seem low, but keep in mind this was a survey of over 79,000 students. That means that almost a thousand (950) students attempted suicide in the year before the survey. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds. Clearly, mental health is a huge problem for our youth. How do we as a society deal with this? How do we as millennials deal with this?

Meme Culture

Enter the meme. You would be forgiven for assuming that there is no connection between memes and mental illness. After all, aren’t memes just stupid jokes about doges and Kermit the frog? How can memes be used to deal with our problems when they are mostly seen as just a way of waste time?

I always have a meme.

The thing is, memes have become something more than just jokes. Memes are culture, now. Not only do they form unique subcultures, but they are also representations of culture as a whole. Flash memes pop up in reference to silly things that happen in the news, flood your feeds, and disappear almost instantly. Consider the rush of “Nasty Woman” and “Bad Hombre” memes that emerged during the election season. These reflected the cultural interaction with the election. Millennials (and others) created and shared these memes to showcase their interest and frustration with the current political climate.

Meme Subculture

In other ways, memes can form distinct subcultural groups based on a shared interest. These groups range from mainstream to obscure to just plain absurd. However, they often serve as a way for the creators and consumers of these memes to express the strange inner workings of the millennial mindframe.

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Consider Classical Art Memes. This Facebook group posts images of classical art interposed with crazy captions. A common theme that emerges in these pictures is a sense of discontent with the world at large.

Existential dread looms over us all.

A more mainstream subcultural group would be Best of Cards Against Humanity. Given the popularity of the “party game for horrible people,” it makes sense that people would want to share their best plays. These posts also frequently reflect discontent. They can be absolutely absurd – but they can still have something to say about the state of the world and the fear many millennials have about the future.

Ouch.

Webcomics are also an emerging form of meme culture. Some of these posts are simply for the fun of it. Adam Ellis posts absurd four-panel comics on Buzzfeed and Facebook. These range from a silly comic about Link and Zelda’s relationship to the inner workings of Ellis’ cat. However, Ellis can also post serious things, and often skewers the political scene. After the first Immigration Ban was put into effect, Ellis posted a comic of the Statue of Liberty crying, next to the famous inscription on the statue.

This is definitely how my brain works [Owlturd comics].

Meme groups can even form their own language of sorts. Take Big Hecking Group of Dang Doggos, a Facebook page that, as of this writing, has over 136,000 members. This group has created and popularized a new set of slang terms that apply to dogs – doggo, pupper, boof, bork, etc. These terms make no sense outside of this specific context. However, for the group members, these terms represent a shared understanding and shared sense of humor.

All dog are puppy.

The Tumblr Text Post

A very specific type of meme that is incredibly popular is the Tumblr text post. In these memes, people will post screengrabs of funny text posts that resonate with them. Some of these are, again, silly and absurd. A massive amount of people enjoy posting absolutely terrible puns. Others post jokes related to specific fandoms – fandom groups that find an outlet on Tumblr to share their collective interests.

I did not sign up for this.

In fact, all of Tumblr serves this purpose. Whether it’s a fandom blog or a hipster blog or both or neither, blogs serve to allow the blogger to share their interests with the world. When a post resonates with another person, they can reblog it. But they can also comment on the post, creating a communication between two people who might be complete strangers who live on completely different continents.

This ability for instantaneous global communication, paired with the relative anonymity of Tumblr, allows people to express themselves in ways that might not be possible with in-person interactions. Which brings us to my main point – that memes allow millennials to express their mental distress in ways that they may not be comfortable doing in person. Access to mental health care is on the decline even as rates of mental distress are climbing. Young people may not have access to, or may not be able to afford, professional mental health care. Thus, they turn to the internet and the shared collective of other millennials who feel the same way as them and can understand their inner thoughts.

My internal narrator is rude.

Even the subgroups mentioned earlier function in this way. Classical Art Memes posts jokingly nihilist memes, but they represent a growing dissatisfaction with life as it currently is. Cards Against Humanity and webcomics allow for stinging shots at political opponents or a scathing review of the things that distress millennials.

Communication

Big Hecking Group of Dang Doggos is an interesting case. The group is private, and posts are approved by group administrators. However, group members are constantly posting things to the group that are then accessible to any of the 136,000+ members. These posts are often pictures of a person’s dog, sometimes with a funny caption. Sometimes people will start a thread about a certain breed of dog or a strange habit of their dog. These threads allow people from all over to laugh and feel a sense of camaraderie with other dog owners.

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It gets more interesting than that, however. Frequently, posts will reference something negative – a break-up, a problem at work, etc. – with the poster asking for pictures of cute dogs to lift their moods. Often, people will post a picture of a dog that has passed away, asking for people to share in their grief and, again, post uplifting pictures. This is a direct way for people to address negative mental health issues and seek help, even if it does not seem like it. By actively asking other people to share in grief and lift up moods, these posters are taking an active role in their mental health.

Tumblr Therapy

This, again, is a growing subgroup of Tumblr posts. While some of these posts are just jokes, others are a way for people to let off steam or complain about a serious issue. However, in other cases, Tumblr posts go even further in regards to mental health. Acknowledging the role mental health plays in our lives is a big part of seeking help. On Tumblr, people are not afraid to admit their problems, most likely due to the sense of anonymity mentioned earlier.

Parkour!

Tumblr posts also allow users to build genuine connections with other users, and these connections are important for many reasons. These connections allow Tumblr users to develop interpersonal skills  and create friendships that would not be possible otherwise. These communities can be thought of as a sort of online, anonymous support group for people with mental illness.

These groups also show a distinct concern for other users and frequently address mental health issues in an effort to protect and help others. Tumblr users might post a list of ways to help a person with depression or tips and tricks to deal with anxiety. In other cases, Tumblr users get direct about dealing with mental illness, particularly the issue of suicide. Rather than being obnoxious or vicious trolls, Tumblr users turn out to be a sort of guardian angel, patrolling the web to encourage suicidal users to think twice and not harm themselves.

Very important and good advice.

This is what makes memes interesting. In some cases, they are just silly little pictures on the web. Even so, getting a quick laugh as you scroll through Facebook makes a nice change from angry political posts. But even better, memes can serve as a way to express and connect. Memes allow us to express ourselves, build communities, and speak about mental health in a more direct and engaging way.

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