Can We Joke About Depression?

In group chats with my friends, it’s pretty normal to see phrases like “lmao I want to die” or “please end my suffering” show up. Jokes about depression fill my social media feeds. In Silicon Valley especially, where so much of our humor revolves around the psychological toll our intensive schedules take on us, it seems like it’s part of the culture to talk about depression in humorous terms.

Obviously, depression is not a laughing matter. It makes trying to find some sense of self-esteem or motivation an ongoing struggle in my life. It makes it difficult to breathe when intrusive thoughts of suicide enter my mind and the unbearable guilt crushes my chest. It makes getting out of bed many mornings an immense burden, one which I oftentimes do not surmount.

Though depression is a significant problem in my life, I find relief in being able to bring it up in discussion by cracking jokes about it. It’s an important way for me to cope given the reality that if issues surrounding mental health aren’t brought up in a humorous way in casual conversation, people see it as too weighty or awkward to be brought up at all.

Being able to use humor to approach the subject of depression brings turmoil to the surface of conversations in a more natural, approachable way. When I make jokes about depression, I can externalize it from myself and feel agency over my own personality. It makes depression feel less like a hopeless way of life than a problem I can separate myself from and find that I still have my whole personality underneath.

Jokes about depression are controversial for a good reason, though. There’s something disturbing when some people joke about depression carelessly, especially when they’re not empathetic to it. I’d make a distinction between people who make fun of depression and people who make fun of depressed people.

Like with any humor, context and audience matters. In my experience, a lot of the jokes that I’d classify as insensitive often come from people who don’t have similar struggles—phrases like “She’s off her meds,” “Kill yourself,” or “I’m totally bipolar.” This kind of mockery can at best rile others, and at worst make someone who’s struggling doubt whether their affliction is really “that big of a deal.” These people imply that depression is a fleeting consequence of fleeting stress. They imply that I’m irrational, over-emotional, and hanging onto sadness for too long, not dealing with a mental health issue.

Where does that leave me? What if I slip a “I drank water today, why am I still depressed??” into a chat? Maybe I’ll like that post that says “Me: it looks beautiful outside today, I can’t wait to go en— Depression: What If No?” For me, at least, that specific sort of humor feels distinct from that which parodies depressed people. It feels more like a genuine way for me to translate the fact that this is a part of my life. I think the key is that they’re jokes where someone who has depression isn’t the punchline, and depression isn’t treated like something widely relatable or something you should ever want to have.

When I started to see that the latter sort of depressive humor was more truthfully relatable than the overused memes about student stress, I began to see how the symptoms manifested in my own life. That humor didn’t make the subject matter more appealing; rather, it became clearer why the shock factor to jokes about depression was so weighty. Knowing that a lot of other people dealt with similar struggles, in a way that felt more sincere to my life than the usual “#relatable teenage content” made talking about it less intimidating because the fear that I might truly be alone in my situation went away.

The “normalization” of clinical depression as a concept may well be exactly what’s needed to awaken others to their realities as well. It’s hard to make the distinction between what humor is acceptable and what isn’t, or between who should be speaking to these experiences and who shouldn’t, but it’s worth trying. And I think the alternative—a world where it’s taboo to talk about depression at all—is on the whole worse for people who suffer from it. Laughter may not be the best medicine, but it’s something.

In a 10 minute brunch period my friends and I will have already cracked plenty of jokes all somehow boiling down to one thing: how humorous it is that we want to die. Phrases such as “kill me” and “I want death” are thrown around quite often. Though I have become an avid participant in these jokes, they leave a nasty aftertaste in my mouth when the passing period bell rings and we all go back to our classes.

While my friends are filing into their APs, thriving and achieving straight A’s, I walk to my college preps dreading having to face my teacher knowing that I haven’t turned in that essay from two weeks ago. Because instead of doing homework when I get home, I sink into my bed so deep I feel the floor press against my back, unable to get back up due to a lingering fatigue. This has been my life for the past six years, living with medically diagnosed depression.

When mental health is desensitized in an area where it’s no anomaly, those who actually suffer from mental health issues start to think it’s normal to have depressive thoughts as a result of these jokes. These jokes have almost turned mental health into a “trend,” one where if you can’t relate, then you’re the odd one out.

As a teenager in Silicon Valley surrounded by overachieving and equally stressed out peers, the pressure to fill my course load with APs has affected my mental health drastically. It’s expected of me to take as many rigorous courses as I can, even if I may not succeed. When I hear my peers joke about how unstable they are mentally, but see that they can balance a 4.0 GPA while simultaneously taking multiple college level courses, I put pressure on myself to take those classes as well. And when I’m unable to keep up with the workload due to my depression, I feel inferior to my friends. Hearing these jokes gives me the impression that they are going through a similar situation to me, when in reality they might not be coping with a mental illness at all.

Due to the majority of teenagers making these insensitive jokes, it’s difficult to identify when they become clear warning signals. With such sensitive topics being the core of crude jokes on a daily basis, teenagers seem to be desensitized to the real effects of mental illnesses.

You might argue that these jokes are being used as a vital coping mechanism while simultaneously raising awareness, but these jokes are more commonly used for relatability by those who aren’t actually suffering from a mental illness. As a result, they become “trendy,” and when your peers seem to be going through a situation similar to theirs (even though they really aren’t), it’s easy to invalidate your own experiences and not pursue medical help.

The argument that awareness is being raised is also a misguided one. Sure, it’s liberating to be able to freely talk about your instability, but no one seems to be doing anything about the situation. This normalization isn’t going to urge teens to actually seek out professional guidance, and potentially leads them not to. If everyone seems to have a mental illness, does that make it okay?

Adults are excluded from these jokes, even though they’re the ones that hold the potential to impact teens the most. Los Altos staff were very supportive of me and made sure I received any form of help they had to offer. They don’t take the subject delicately, and offer multiple forms of assistance to their students.

Jokes about mental health may be adequate at a more minimal scale, but with their widespread popularity they seem to be doing more harm than good. The effect of these jokes can lead a person, such as myself, to fall deeper into the hole that mental illness has dug. Instead of making a mockery of mental illness, we should be making an effort to support and assist each other in getting the help we need.