Tumblr isn’t a therapist’s office, and we need to stop treating it like one

‘Feeling better means you aren’t being yourself’

For most, Tumblr is a safe haven, a place where fandoms clash with quirky humor and fanfics rule the land.

Yet existing alongside Sherlock-Dr.Who mashups is a darker side of Tumblr. It is this side of Tumblr that prides itself on being a community of mental health support. Yet, it was there that I found others feeling lost and upset like me. It was there that these blogs and personalities introduced me to self-harm. And it was there that I found inspiration to continue harming myself for another four years, thinking all the while that my addiction to a razor blade was normal.

My experience isn’t unique.

It’s easy to log on to Tumblr, type “depression,” “suicide,” “anorexia,” etc., into the search box, click past the automatic “Everything okay?” Tumblr response (which is appreciated), and find a multitude of black and white photos, portraying beautiful if unnaturally skinny women. Drawings appear of a blood-covered arms, with captions like “Hello darkness, my old friend.” A particularly graphic image shows someone’s wrist being cut open, the caption, ironically, “ ‘Promise me you’ll never cut yourself again.’ ”

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As a young girl, struggling to understand my emotions, it was blogs with posts like these that allowed me to feel like I wasn’t alone. They showed me that the “darkness” I found myself shrouded in was my friend, and that it was OK to continue harming myself, despite promises made not to.

In a very confusing manner, many of these blogs also appeared to offer help and support to their followers through anonymous messages, yet continued to encourage harm through their posts. One particular blog offered to listen and support an anonymous user who needed “someone to talk to,” while simultaneously posting pictures of girls cutting themselves.

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I spoke with a former Tumblr user, Miranda, who told me of her experiences while struggling from anxiety and depression:

“I remember I’d once written something about feeling better, and I had comments telling me that feeling better means you aren’t being yourself…A lot of people I followed would tell others to self harm or try cutting in different places.”

Another user, Alexa, highlighted simply how detrimental the content posted on Tumblr was for those already struggling with depression:

“Tumblr was one of the main places I would go to trigger myself. I would scroll through Tumblr and start searching for things to make myself sand and make me want to cut myself…I think I just needed a release.”

To make it worse, it seems that this duality of offering help but promoting unhealthy habits didn’t end end at posts about depression and self-harm.

I spoke to girls whose eating disorders were severely magnified on Tumblr.

Alexis, told me of how Tumblr encouraged starving herself:

“Growing up, I always thought of myself as kind of chubbier, and I decided to take to the Internet to find solutions. I started off by following a bunch of health blogs with exercise and diet suggestions that would promote healthy habits. But the more time I spent on the site, I would stumble upon other blogs that weren’t as healthy. These blogs promoted weight loss, but they would encourage binging and purging, not eating at all, or watching ‘thinspo’ [thin-inspiration] to name a few things. I distinctly remember a post I stumbled on that said, ‘hunger hurts but starving works.’”

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Alongside the unnaturally skinny women of the thinspo, pro-anorexia blogs, lies the most toxic side of Tumblr, entirely dedicated to “Meanspo,” the practice of posting mean, hurtful messages outwardly encouraging starvation. Blogs like these claim they are supportive, but rather being supportive of one’s health, they support and encourage toxic practices.

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Why are we letting young women be exposed anonymous, harmful, misguided advice in the name of support? Since when has anonymous Tumblr messages replaced a professional, trained therapist?

In a final attempt to understand this toxic community, I reached out to the owners of some of these blogs, asking why they posted what they did, and if they were aware of the damage it caused.

One pro-anorexia blogger, going by the name of vulpixphoebe, told me “I hate how big this community is getting, and it is very damaging, specifically for young girls. I know that what I’m doing is wrong,” but insisted that Tumblr was where she sought out to express herself and find support, no matter the effects it had on her followers. 

I spoke to a blogger, who wished to remain anonymous, who said:

“I definitely paint mental illness as more beautiful than it is; I post thinspo, which highlights only the element of skinniness in EDs and none of the suffering. I don’t think it’s toxic, at least not to my audience. It’s toxic only to pro-anas who are willingly, actively trying to ‘get’ anorexia, and I don’t take responsibility for that…But, I’m sure many girls see mentally ill people discussing their illness and go ‘wow, how tragically romantic, I wish I had that!’ The way I see it, there is nothing I can do about that, and it’s not going make me feel responsible if they decide to fake mental illness or ‘catch and ED.”’

The mental illness blogging side of Tumblr is nothing short of a viscous cycle. Emotionally confused young women search out answers and support only to find bloggers who claim to know how they feel, yet, whether intentionally or not, promote self-harm and starvation. In turn, these young women get roped into this addictive, two-faced community, creating blogs of their own, mimicking those which inspired their unhealthy habits to begin with.

While Tumblr can surely be a place of self-expression, we must draw the line at glorification of mental illness. Anonymous messages in online communities cannot stand to replace face-to-face communication about topics as grave as mental health. Blogs that do so hurt both the owner of the blog and their followers, perpetuating the illusion that suffering and self-harm are to be admired and that finding a community of people with similar ailments is the same as finding a cure.

Caroline, an inspiring Tumblr user I spoke with, illuminated the importance of avoiding the mental illness wormhole, saying “I encourage all users to follow empowering blogs that will make you feel good. There is a lot of light in that often dark place.”

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