Can mental health ‘memes’ actually help us to cope better?

A new study has found that looking at mental health memes may actually help to relieve some symptoms of anxiety and depression

When it comes to its effect on our mental health, it’s fair to say that the internet gets a pretty bad rap. Comparison traps, the onslaught of bad news, misinformation, and a general sense of information overload.

That said, there are still glimmers of something more positive, and a new study that aligns with National Meme day 12 November has uncovered some surprising findings.

The study, from Sheffield Hallam University, has found evidence to suggest that memes – an image and short caption that usually depicts an element of culture or behaviour in a humorous way – may actually be able to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.

When it comes to memes focused on mental health, the general attitude was to dismiss them as ‘trivialising’ the real-life struggles, but the research by Dr Jennifer Drabble and Dr Umair Akram at Sheffield Hallam’s department of psychology, sociology, and politics has instead found that mental health memes can help us to express difficult emotions in new and creative ways, as well as improving our emotional bonds with each other in a socially supportive way.

“Following the culmination of our work in the area, and the recent increase in studies related to internet memes, we wanted to explore the psychological impact that mental health-related memes may have for individuals experiencing psychiatric symptoms. Often, memes of this nature are disparaged, often without any substantial evidence,” said Dr Umair Akram.

“Research in this area is relatively new. As such, we felt that it was important to set a research agenda, providing tips for other researchers who may be interested in the topic.”

In the UK, it’s estimated that more than 8 million people are experiencing an anxiety disorder at any one time, and one in six people are affected by depression. But despite their commonality, anxiety and depression can be very isolating experiences, in part because of the way that they make us feel, but also because it isn’t always easy to put into words the things that we’re going through.

So, when we stumble across a ‘meme’ that gets an experience spot on, even if that experience isn’t a particularly pleasant one, it can feel affirming. The research paper from Dr Akram and Dr Drabble highlight the online forum Reddit, which hosts a subreddit named ‘memes and misery’ and another called ‘depression memes’, but there are countless sources out there. The researchers point to previous findings that 47% of college students reported engaging with internet memes as a way of alleviating psychiatric symptoms, with self-deprecating memes allowing them to laugh at their problems, and connect with others who are going through the same thing – with the preposition that this kind of humour might facilitate emotional regulation.

All that said, whether or not engaging in this content will be good for you as an individual is entirely personal. So, take some time to consider your own reaction to seeing this kind of content. Does it give you a bit of a chuckle? Affirm your experiences? Make you feel connected to others going through the same thing? Or does it upset you, trigger you in some way, or cause you to ruminate on problems? If so, it might not be for you.

But for those who enjoy it, it appears that the simple meme could be a surprising source of support.

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