Unseen Contributor to Teen Mental Illness?

It has been bothering me for a few years now. The surge in young teens who seem absorbed in mental illness.

I first noticed it after I’d had my iphone for a while. Probably over a year after (I was 18 when I got it). I’d been diagnosed when i was 17, and was probably 19 when I noticed. I was on instagram when I got the random desire to see if there were posts about mental illness on there.

And what I saw horrified me.

Kids as young as 12 were posting horrible photos. Typically it was just the cliche depressed quotes over and over again. But there were also photos of other things… there was “thinspiration” where people would post skinny girls who were their “goal” look in terms of thinness. And then there was the pencil test to determine if you really are thin or not, so people posted pictures of those. And pictures of thigh gaps. But I can’t relate to eating disorders, never had one and don’t think I ever will. Then there were ones that flooded my search and were even triggering to me- self harm photos. They were everywhere. I was horrified.

And the profiles, oh goodness. They would proudly post all their disorders. Even ones that kinda conflicted like they saying they had depression AND bipolar, like its a little redundant, don’t you think? But they would often list every common disorder- depression, bipolar, self harm, anorexia, bulimia. You never saw schizophrenia and definitely none of the lesser known illnesses such as personality disorders. But all the others seemed almost… glamorous. But I would be shunned for saying that. These kids needed help, and I agree, but this isn’t right. This isn’t okay. They need help, but I’m not exactly sure if their help is like the help I need.

I remember spending time with my friends, scrolling through these photos and showing them these and yelling, “Look LOOK this is so messed up! Why is anyone allowing this to happen?!” I was so horrified but my friends just shrugged me off. I don’t think they saw what I saw- the massive wave. An epidemic, you could say.

And an epidemic is exactly what is happening in the book I’m reading right now. Its about this suicide epidemic where all minors are under constant surveillance, you know, in case they try to kill themselves (1 out of 3 of course). And it is pretty cheesy and cliche and fairly predictable and it is easy to read… because… its… made… for teens.

I found it in the teen section.

This made my skin crawl while I was at the bookstore. I like “young adult” or “teen” reading. It is easy, relaxing, and simple so I don’t have to think so hard when I’m not reading a textbook. But I was disturbed. There were a multitude of books that featured mental illness. There was this book, for example, a newly released book about OCD, one about an insane-asylum-revamped-into-private-school with ACTUAL pictures of “insane asylums.” And these are some of the best sellers.

Best sellers.  

Some of the best selling books are about mental health issues.

Now maybe this seems okay. Like, what am I making a big fuss about? And here’s the thing. Here’s the way I grew up. I am literally the transitional age here. I am between the ones in complete/partial denial of mental illness and the ones who think they have every disorder under the sun.

I’m that weird in-between size that I always seem to be in (especially when it comes to clothes shesh).

So I think back to my past. And I don’t remember these types of books being presented. But what I do remember, and what I still see at the bookstore, is this one series of books. They’re poetry but everyone claimed they were so good. They were about drug abusers, and I think cutters, and other horrible things, mostly drugs I think.

I was never interested in them because, well, its poetry.

“But read it anyway, its good!”

“Ok but there’s like 5 words on this page, it’s going to be tedious- so no.”

Anyway. So at the end of my teen years, these types of books were growing in popularity.

And now when I hit the shelves, these books about drug abuse and mental illness are just… everywhere.

But when I was a kid… wasn’t it the fantasy section? I have a huge series of books from this one author. She wrote many different series and they’re amazing and so empowering to young girls but at the same time not in your face about it and they’re just BRILLIANT. But I don’t even see those, hell there’s barely a fantasy section. It makes up one small column next to the gigantic romance section.

What the hell are teen boys even reading these days? Almost everything I saw was definitely, undeniably, directed towards girls.

In any case. I thought about it then, but I thought more about it just now. Its kinda the “what came first the chicken or the egg?” question. (By the way it is the egg and if you know anything about genetics you would know why). Did the teens with mental illness inspire the writers to make books about it? Or did the kids develop* these illnesses because of the books?

*Wording is difficult here because they are not actually diagnosed but you can’t dismiss the fact that they may be ill.

Well I think there are several factors at play here. Yes more people get diagnosed at a young age, which is basically a good thing. But why are they getting diagnosed younger? Are they pushing to see the doctors? Well the kids online certainly aren’t, they seem content to live in this romanticized state of pure agony. But nonetheless, yes I’m sure mental illness being diagnosed more often may play a role somehow.

But the way I remember my childhood is that I was oblivious to mental illness. I remember one time this girl in my class confided in me. She whispered to me that she used to have anorexia and so something. I can’t even remember why she told me, I didn’t even process that she had told me something extremely personal until YEARS later. I was so uneducated about mental illness that it didn’t faze me or even resonate that she told me she was sick and that it was important.

Sometimes I want to message her and apologize. But would that be weird? Honest if anyone has an opinion, write a comment, because I do want to say something but I think it’d be so weird.

In any case. My generation wasn’t savvy to mental illness. At least, as far as I could tell. Not enough to know much about them. Really the idea of them never occurred to me until I was caught smoking weed and asked my parents to let me see a therapist (because I knew if they didn’t I might literally kill myself I was so upset). Even through my therapy I wasn’t very clued into the idea of me being sick. I had one moment of desperate thought and I wrote this:

“I’m not depressed, I know that much, depressed people take medicine, they can’t move, they can’t function. So I can’t be depressed, so then why do I feel so sad? So inexplicably hurt? So empty? Like a zombie I go through life, indifferent and unattached. I don’t want to socialize with anyone who’s not a friend. People disgust me, that’s always the answer. It’s not me, its them, maybe if I weren’t like them, like Bob [pseudonym] said, “A different entity altogether.” So I’m not depressed, I’m not happy either. I think I’m a teenager, f— I hate it. If this is depression- it’s really not so bad.”

And a little note at the top says, “Maybe I do it to myself on purpose.”

Apparently I forgot to add the rest of what I meant about Bob’s comment but I think you can infer. The point is, I had a uneducated view on what depression can look like. And I was simply in denial. One day I took that journal in to my therapist. I showed him it, the entries that said things like, “Is it normal to be sad unless something makes you happy?” “Please take me away from here!” “Commonly felt emotions: anger, overwhelming joy for life, sad, empty, pointless, indifferent, confused, frustrated, hurt.” And worst of all- the list of ways to commit suicide. He wanted to take a picture of it, but I told him he wasn’t allowed to. I even had one with a little star next to it. Wow.

(A side note real quick here, I can’t think back to any childhood signs that I was bipolar, but look at those commonly felt emotions. Look carefully. All of them are depressive symptoms, except that one, “overwhelming joy for life.” What. WHAT.)

Anyway. I was in denial. He read my entries and sighed. He sat me down and had me take some tests that were blatant in their intentions. Obviously it was a scale to diagnose my depression. Obviously. Even I knew that. But I couldn’t help as I went down the list… to not lie. And yes, I was depressed. I was extremely, extremely depressed in high school. Dangerously so. But I didn’t think I was because of what I said in the post before- I could function, I could get out of bed.

All of the arguments I used in my initial diagnosis of my illness were the same ones my dad used against me when I was crying on a psychiatrist’s couch begging for him to sign for me to get pills that could’ve prevented me from making almost suicide attempts (long story, I never truly attempted I just… attempted to.. attempt… …).

So back to the teens of modern day. They’re way more aware. This is popular culture to them. Its in the literature they read. When I first self-harmed, I was in middle school, but my pocket knife was so dull I couldn’t bleed so I didn’t retry until I was about 16-17(?). But now there are posts of it all over the internet.

In their biographies on instagram they love to post, “Days clean: 0” In all the hours, HOURS, DAYS, of slaving over those posts and biographies, I only once saw someone put a number other than 0. I’m serious.

I noticed disturbing trends. Teens using all the disorders even when it didn’t make sense, teens using days clean, even a teen who’s profile I followed far back enough to see that she made the this type of account before she did her first cut and then posted about it, and just all kinds of things.

The ones that gets me most is the girl who posted a picture saying, “If we do [self harm] for attention, then why do we try so hard to hide it?” and then her next post immediately was saying if she got a certain amount of likes or followers or whatever she would stop burning herself.

All I can really do is sigh about that.

What I’m really trying to convey here in all my blabbering, is that something isn’t right. There is something that changed at the generation right under me that has made them obsessed with mental illness.

Now maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it has always been this way. But I don’t think so. The world hasn’t been presented to me in a way that leads me to believe that mental illness was the forefront before. From what I’ve read mental illness is actually underrepresented.

Yet teens now, for one example, draw hearts in certain colors on their wrists to secretly signal other mentally ill students that they are self-harming, depressed, anorexic, etc. (No I’m serious, they do this, I don’t know if it works I’ve never seen it in action though).

Mental illness is starting to get attention in politics. But I don’t think that’s where the kids are getting it from.

I think it was a cascade effect. Not just one source, obviously, but I do think the books play a role.

If we are writing books that young adults are reading which depict mental illness in any light, then we are informing them what mental illness is. And that may sound like a good thing… but it can also be a bad thing.

What about celebrities?

Ah Demi Lovato. I’m sure she is one hell of a nice girl and I know she has struggled a lot. I don’t really know much about her, I will admit I went to one of her concerts solely to hear one of her songs… but also as kind of an experiment.

Lovato openly admits that she went to treatment and had an ED and self-harmed. And she’s a former Disney star so her audience is- you guessed it- teenagers. Teenagers who idolize her. Suddenly the way she was so strong and persevered through her illness only to fall and then rise back up again to become the now super strong and amazing limelight of somebody who made it, who did it.

Come on, they’re teenagers. Anything a role model does is romantic to them. And teenagers are emotionally unstable, and these things give them a reason for the instability. Suddenly they can see their instability as some tragic fall, something they must persevere through.

Don’t you get it?

They’re heroes.

And that’s what they are in the books too.

I grew up in generation that was mostly oblivious but starting to recognize mental illness.

The generation below me seems acutely aware of it.

Is that a good thing? Should teenagers be aware of mental illnesses? Read about it? See their favorite celebrities struggle through it?

Are they going to interpret this in the way it should be? As a tragedy you never want to experience instead of a heroic struggle against oneself?

I’m getting started on these teenage mental illness books, pretty excited for the OCD one because it will definitely confirm or disprove my hero hypothesis.

But I think it is something we need to seriously consider. Is the way we are presenting mental illnesses healthy or unhealthy? Are we being educational in the right ways?

Side note: I don’t really linger on those websites anymore. I was very out of control when I did and it was unhealthy. I have a personal blog, made much later than this, I vent on but I do not post quotes and I would not ever post pictures of my self harm (plus all the pictures that are posted are just so pretty. Pretty little neat lines. Nuh uh. My legs looked like a massacre. I look at them now and think- it looks like somebody was trying to kill me. And there was- me. That turned out well when it almost did). What I have noticed when I go back to them is that they are cracking down and posting self-harm photos can have you banned or whatever. Which I think is a very good thing.

I just think there is something fishy going on here. Something off. These books, although entertaining, might be dangerous in a sense. These celebrities, good as their intentions may be, may actually be exposing kids to a world that they shouldn’t know exists yet.

What would I be had I grown up in this generation that has so much mental illness information put in front of her?

I sought it after I was diagnosed, long after.

But before then I didn’t really know.

Was I just oblivious? Was I not the norm?

Or are kids these days becoming aware of mental illness in an unhealthy way?

And dare I say it- Does it make them want to be ill?

Are they making it their identity?



(As a sidenote, I just want to mention I aim to become a psychologist. A research psychologist specifically. And I think I really want to study this internet phenomena. I think it is relatively unexplored, although I haven’t checked in a while. But I think it is very disturbing. I think the internet and social media have become a major detrimental factor in teens in a lot of ways. But this fixation on mental illness seems bizarre to me. I want to study young adults. I want to see what is going on here. That’s why I spent so long analyzing these profiles and posts. I’ve been thinking about this for years and it is a very important post for me. I wish I could show you what I saw, but I can only describe. If you saw you’d understand why I feel this way. Because something here is wrong. These aren’t just kids venting, these aren’t just kids getting appropriate information about illnesses, this is something else. …An epidemic, almost. Maybe that’s where the young author of this book I’m reading got her idea from).


I'm a 22 year old college student with aspirations too high for my own good. I've been diagnosed bipolar type 1 and have a small gathering of other problems like self-harm, anxiety, and ones I don't talk about (yet). I'm the proud owner of a big and rambunctious kitten. I love to write, I live with my parents, and I always seem to be having some sort of mental flare up.

4 thoughts on “Unseen Contributor to Teen Mental Illness?

  1. Thank you. This is a topic I know very little about. I am aware of pro-ana sites, postings of self-injury and suicide attempts, but it is word of mouth. I haven’t visited the sites. Things spread so fast on social media.

    Do people use the word “emo” anymore? It seems similar.

    I think you will be a great research psychologist 🙂

    As far as the girl that disclosed to you, do you have contact with her now? I think it would be nice to say something, but not if you have to search for her. JMHO

    • Quinn Identicon Quinn

      Thank you. I hope I make a good researcher too.

      I am not sure if the term “emo” is commonly used anymore. I remember in middle school we would joke about it a lot and even use our hands and make cutting motions on our wrists. It was a stupid, horrible joke but what do you expect from middle schoolers who don’t know any better? I never even thought about those jokes until quite recently. Which is entertaining since I was a relatively severe self-harmer yet I never once reflected on those seemingly harmless jokes, nor do I believe they inspired me to start- that was more some kind of instinctive drive that I don’t understand.

      As for the girl, she’s my friend on facebook. I asked her once if a guy we both knew ever badgers her to hang out like he does sometimes with me but that’s all. I do feel like it’d be strange to mention it. It feels like I should’ve forgotten.

      • I have heard it used sometimes on Twitter to attack progressives. People love suggesting mental illness about their political opponents.

  2. Been thinking more about this. Once I was in a conversation with a couple of friends, one of whom suffered from severe depression, and another who wasn’t diagnosed with anything. The third one sighed and said that she wished she had a mental illness. Of course, the other two of us told her that she didn’t, but as I have thought about it over the years, I realize that what she was saying was that she was bored. That can be painful in its own right.

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