Subscriber OnlyYour Wellness

Social media and mental health: The glorification of illness is becoming a real problem

A welcome spotlight on mental health issues can also lead to oversimplification, with self-diagnosis and misunderstandings rife

Attempts to challenge the stigma surrounding mental health has meant a more open community in sharing experiences, attitudes and beliefs. Media and online social platforms have provided a necessary outlet for people to voice their concerns. However, they have also complicated the most intricate of conditions in not only amplifying but also misrepresenting mental health, often making it appear trendy.

“The media has been responsible on many fronts for helping to raise awareness and educate on matters of mental health and mental ill-health,” says Dr Deborah McNamara, a clinical psychologist in Galway. “People sharing personal experiences and challenges has helped to destigmatise mental health and helped others to feel less isolated in their own struggles or diagnosis.

“While destigmatising mental health is hugely important, we need to consider how the effort to reduce stigma has led to more nuanced problems in society in terms of glorifying and oversimplifying mental health issues.”

Glamorising mental health can be as damaging as the stigma society works hard to counter. In essence, glorifying leads to an inherent oversimplification and misdirection of the complex nature of mental health and its symptoms, with self-diagnosis and misunderstandings becoming commonplace.


“In the last few years, there has been an alarming rise in the glorification of serious mental health concerns, such as eating disorders and self-harm, through internet blogs where posters share pictures of self-harm injuries or create ‘thinspiration’ and ‘pro-ana’ blogs,” says McNamara. “Social media content in particular can often oversimplify complex mental health problems.

“The use of mental health terms for casual reference are commonplace across many platforms. Posters use throwaway phrases like ‘I’m so OCD’ to describe a preference for cleanliness or neatness, equating a serious disorder to a behavioural habit. Such trends are unhelpful as they serve to minimise the experience of those who struggle with mental illness and dismiss the severity of symptoms and the very real and often debilitating impact on the daily lives of those who are impacted.”

The misrepresentation of mental illness can disrupt the positive changes and impressions made from challenging the stigma. It can confuse the narrative, making mental illness appear tragic but beautiful, and set us back as a society.

“Glorifying or oversimplifying mental illness can lead to misinformation and runs the risk of discouraging those who are experiencing mental distress from seeking support,” says McNamara. “Any discussion about mental health requires a level of sensitivity and awareness of the potential impact on others. In order to increase inclusivity, content creators must be cognisant of others’ mental health experiences and journeys. It is also important to use deliberate terminology and avoid diminishing others’ struggles.”

Of real concern are the posts that encourage the trend of self-evaluation without emphasising the importance of professional assessment

Social media platforms such as TikTok have seen an increase in viral posts surrounding mental health issues, self-diagnosis, and users attributing traits to others, encouraging followers to consider their own self-diagnosis, perpetuating an unhealthy and ill-informed cycle. Trends sharing experiences of undiagnosed conditions can lead to a person being identified as the condition and fail to recognise the person as a whole, with unique traits. Identity becomes confused and labelled, and real concerns are simplified.

“There is a growing trend right now of utilising social media platforms, particularly Instagram and TikTok, to self-diagnose mental health conditions such as ADHD, OCD, borderline personality and depression,” says McNamara. “While many posts relating to mental health can be helpful in raising awareness and normalising mental health, of real concern are the posts that encourage the trend of self-evaluation without emphasising the importance of professional assessment. Symptoms present differently between different people.

“Self-diagnosing based on another person’s experience, through social media posts or through unverified internet sources could lead to reliance on inappropriate or ineffective treatments. Professional diagnosis is a complex process, and it is crucial to only receive a diagnosis from a registered mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, GP or clinical psychologist, all of whom adhere to a professional code of ethics.”

The portrayal of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa are often inaccurate with a focus on extreme cases or the implication that it is a choice or lifestyle rather than a serious mental health condition

Added to the complications of misunderstanding, the algorithms of online platforms continually push content to a user based on their usage. This means someone who has clicked on specific mental health content even once will continue to see similar content, prolonging a person’s access to possibly wrong or negative material, which in turn has the potential to reinforce their concerns that they have a mental health issue. In reality, they may simply need to switch off from the difficult online narrative that oversimplifies and possibly glamorises a condition.

“The glorification and oversimplifying of mental ill health in the media often perpetuate stereotypes and dismisses the severity of mental health disorders,” says McNamara. “For example, the portrayal of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa are often inaccurate with a focus on extreme cases or the implication that it is a choice or lifestyle rather than a serious mental health condition. This oversimplification leads to a lack of understanding of the complex psychological and biological factors that underpin the disorder.

“The same process is seen across a number of mental health disorders including obsessive-compulsive disorder and mood disorders, within which the severity of the disorder is dismissed and the experiences of those with a diagnosis invalidated.”

Limiting the negative impact of the glorification of mental health issues sits heavily within education and evaluating a person’s relationship with, and consumption of, the online world, the media and how information is perceived, while being mindful that not all representations of mental illness are negative.

“It is important that we continue to utilise these platforms to talk about mental illness and provide people with the resources and support they need,” says McNamara. “The emphasis needs to be on education as well as accurate representations.”