Mental health and glamour: new forms of romanticisation in Cambridge

tw: depression, anxiety, eating disorders, medication


For my dissertation this year, I decided to look at the glamorization of mental illness in media and YA literature. This feels like a pretty distant topic for me now- but it was a big part of my world Years 9-11, in that kind of idolisation of John Green’s Alaska, thinking anxiety was cute kind of way.

I thought that depression meant you’re deep, eating disorders mean you’re in control and anxiety was a sweet personality quirk. But at the same time, I was severely depressed and not coping at all. Within my bubble of social media, people began to express their mental illnesses through black and white pictures of white women crying, gifs of Effy from Skins, pictures of thigh gaps and deep and/or broody quotes cryptically talking about being depressed on Tumblr.

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Without an avenue of actual clinical help, this is how I began to express my own mental illness too. I remember collating this kind of scrap book, collecting Ben Howard quotes and images of every Manic Pixie Dream Girl I could find. The sole purpose of this book was to gain attention from people at school who might see me writing in it- so that people might, maybe, worry about me. I thought that being dark and poetic was a valid solution for my clinical illness.

A few years later, in Sixth Form, I finally talked to my parents properly about my issues. By this point, I almost revelled in my illness. But as soon as I explained how I was feeling, my dad signed me up for a doctor’s appointment and I got prescribed fluoxetine for depression the very next day. He explained how clinical, hereditary depression works. Within a week, I was happy- I can remember coming downstairs for dinner, and my mum said ‘there’s light in your eyes again- I’ve got my daughter back’. This sounds cliché, but it was so very right at the time. It felt as though I could breathe again, my body felt balanced, I could rationalise once more. I remember going on a school trip with friends and just laughing the entire time.

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Since going on antidepressants, I have never again logged onto my teenage Tumblr account. I’ve stuck very much so clear of any kind of glamorizing behaviour and tried to let my mind heal. Until this term, when I started writing my dissertation.

Something really struck me as I was researching. Although we might not glamorize mental illness in the same, gif-fuelled Tumblr melancholy anymore, we still glamorize it, especially in Cambridge. All too often I hear the same, mindless conversation in the college buttery, the ADC bar, in a lecture break. One person says how stressed they are about work, another says they’re also ridiculously stressed, and it turns into this kind of sick competition over how difficult they’re finding Cambridge life. How many essays have you not been able to turn in, how depressing is your finsta, what medication do you take, how long have you been in the library today, how isolated do you feel here, etc, etc, etc. It becomes a kind of badge of honour and coolness- how depressed and anxious you’re feeling at the moment.

We desperately need to listen to each other. I can’t hear another person finish a confession of how stressed their feeling with a ‘lol’ or an ‘lmao’, or see another finsta story about how funny it is that their life is completely falling apart.

Please, please, please try not to trivialise mental health crises. Ask your friend how they’re doing, really, rather than laughing with them. We’re not 14 anymore, it’s time to take the initiative as grown adults to treat mental health properly.