Memes and Mental Health: 2016 Was the Year We Started Laughing at Our Own Anxiety


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Memes and Mental Health: 2016 Was the Year We Started Laughing at Our Own Anxiety

It was a landmark for anxiety becoming not just an increasingly common mental health problem, but a cultural and social phenomenon.
Hannah Ewens
London, GB

Since summer of this year, the number of people in the UK googling "xanax" has almost doubled. Overall, 2016 saw more searches for "anxiety" from British IP addresses than ever before. On YouTube, over 350,000 anxiety-related videos have been uploaded this month alone.

In the real world, fewer musicians used the age-old excuse of "exhaustion" when cancelling their tours; instead, the likes of Zayn Malik and Selena Gomez openly shared the fact it was anxiety that prevented them from continuing. And those tour-stunted artists who did use "exhaustion" as a vague pretext were mostly subject to Twitter diagnosing them with mental illness anyway.


Then there were the headlines: one in six adults in the UK has a common mental disorder like anxiety – a number that rises to one in five among young women. Worse yet, more than one in three teen girls is suffering from anxiety or depression. And the general public has noticed, or been helped to notice: in the recent VICELAND UK Census, 81 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds said they think that mental health coverage in the media has increased in the past year.

Even if all that has passed you by, you'll have noticed that, in 2016, it's become much more socially acceptable to say you have anxiety IRL – especially when compared to other mental health issues, like depression – and even more so online.

Anxiety thrives at the convergence of powerlessness and uncertainty, and 2016 served us a large dose of both of those, while social media and the 24-hour news cycle made it difficult to take a break from significant and particularly anxiety-inducing world events.

Just after the EU referendum, Eleanor Morgan wrote how the leave vote might affect young people with anxiety disorders. During the US presidential campaign, women who'd been victims of sexual assault watched the Republican candidate – and now president-elect – brag about sexually assaulting women. Before the US election, 52 percent of Americans reported that it was a "very or somewhat significant source of stress" in a poll conducted by the American Psychological Association.


Therapists were worried about the effects a Trump presidency would have on the mental health of women and minorities. Since he won those fears have become very real, with access to contraception and abortion potentially restricted, and the racism his campaign tapped into normalised and the people who preach it emboldened. It's a similar story in the UK; this year, NSPCC Childline had a 35 percent increase on 2014-5 when it came to calls related to anxiety, with an average of 36 a day. Many of these were tied to world events such as Brexit, Trump and the conflict in Syria. Even Mumsnet had a post-Brexit anxiety thread.

Image: @weareallmemes

Online, in both niche and mainstream spaces, anxiety became the most relatable joke: both the set-up and the punchline. The meta-ironic tone started pre-2016 with Twitter accounts like So Sad Today – who kickstarted the miserable one-liners about panic attacks and anxious self-loathing – and joke anxiety Twitter accounts, but was fully adopted across social media and Twitter in particular this year.

You don't have to be an LA-based Vine comedian to tweet a weak "me/also me" anxiety opus and get 1,500 retweets, just a young media type with a blue tick. And you don't need to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder to retweet; you just require the ability to laugh and nod your head in recognition of the vague sense of unease that pervades your life. Are you anxious? Probably.


Illustrators on Instagram – like @rubyetc and @filthyratbag, who both became hugely popular for their artwork putting poor mental health at the centre of the young person's experience – are launching art careers off the back of depictions of personal anxiety. Memes have followed. Anxiety and depression starter packs; evil Kermit memes; the bingo boards of symptoms – they've all shown that no mental health issue is so complex that it can't be analysed succinctly, reduced to a meme and shared by thousands who relate.

Image: @weareallmemes

How we talk about mental health on social media has changed. The word anxiety is followed by a lol; the discussion of its symptoms ends with an implied crying laughing emoji. This tone and format has come out of a frustration – particularly felt by young women, people of colour and minority groups – that their anxiety is not being acknowledged, and their experiences going untold in mainstream mental health narratives.

Is all this irony detrimental? Does it help to see your existential fear reflected back at you in weak memes and tweets, or does it make you wallow? Does it – and this is very likely – make you apply a veil of irony to your own mental health in a way that could be read as positive or negative? In my experience, it's a relief to see other people feeling the way you do. A relief to be able to laugh at what burdens you.


More on anxiety:

Why We Need to Stop Saying We're All Mental

How Young People Feel About Mental Health

Should You Tell Work About Your Mental Health Condition?