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Romantic Misery

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Nostalgia as we know it today is rather mild compared to its origins. Mentions of nostalgia first appeared in Switzerland, when a man named Johannes Hofer wrote about the topic in a dissertation at the University of Basel. Hofer was in fact writing about a disease characterized by homesickness, often found in soldiers. Nostalgia presented symptoms like eating disorders, sleeplessness, and even suicide — the only cure was to send the soldiers home. In 1867, nostalgia could be listed as a cause of death. In the first two years of the American Civil War, 13 were reported to have died of nostalgia — indeed, of intense homesickness.

These days, “homesickness” evokes memories of first sleep-away camps. Nostalgia is a cultural norm, at least on the internet. Calling nostalgia a mental illness now sounds absurd; such a harmless little feeling? That people could die from? We even seek out nostalgia!

How did this change happen? How did a mental disease get demoted to a trendy pastime, a catchy video title?

Somewhere along the way, nostalgia became increasingly romanticized. Instead of being diagnosed, nostalgia was illustrated — in literature, and in films, and in TV. Medical nostalgia became poetic or romantic nostalgia, simply because perceptions and portrayals changed.

The process of romanticization has been thrown into a frenzy on the internet. Millennials, it has been noted, are especially nostalgic. And almost all of us have seen the “Childhood” Twitter accounts and the 90s-themed TV specials.

The frenzy hasn’t focused solely on nostalgia, either; the internet has a tendency to throw cultural development into overdrive. Trends grow on the internet like wildfire, and one trend in particular may be just as dangerous.

(#depression #anxiety #black and white #thinspo #proana). A significant amount of popular Tumblr posts are tagged something like this. In fact, posts detailing the struggles of mental illness are common on Tumblr.

Now, this doesn’t sound so bad, does it? People with mental illnesses should by no means be ostracized. As a website entirely based on communities interacting, Tumblr has the potential to nurture a culture that gives people with mental disorders the support they need. But the culture that seems to be developing in the pictures and gifs isn’t just creating an atmosphere of inclusion for people suffering from mental illness.

I think the intentions of the Tumblr community were, at least at first, pure. Mental illness has historically been seen by society as a flaw. People suffering from disorders in the past have been tormented and shunned. Before the popularization of modern psychiatric care, insane asylums were the main treatment centers for the mentally ill; some really terrifying stories have come out of quite a few of those. As society has progressed, we have moved to destigmatize mental illness. Tumblr, likewise, has tried to help this exceedingly worthy cause. Unfortunately, they’re sort of missing the mark.

Most of the posts with mental illness-related tags emphasize artsy-ness and beauty in pain. Mental illnesses are being glorified, their sufferers idolized, and the consequences are grim. Instead of getting help, people can isolate themselves inside an internet world where depression is tragically beautiful. Therapy and support from loved ones are not encouraged; the problems of mental illness are essentially avoided by changing the perception. Mental illness is turned into a non-problem.

So, it appears that some mental illnesses, especially anxiety and depression, are going the way of nostalgia. From our current standpoint, a future where anxiety and depression are nothing more than trendy listicles is hard to imagine, but judging by the path we’re currently following, this seems to be an inevitable outcome.

If anxiety and depression really change in the same way that nostalgia changed, I see no danger in that future. Once anxiety and depression depart fully from their original powers and meanings, there will likely be new words to fill their places. Just as we currently do not need to address nostalgia as a crippling problem, in a future where anxiety and depression are non-problems, no treatment or solution is needed.

The true danger lies in the path toward this imagined future. The main feature of this path, this movement toward romance, is that the words we use to describe mental illness will be stripped of their power. Crippling mental illness is a heavy topic and a heavy burden for anyone who experiences it. The names we use for disorders, then, should be equally as heavy. Without proper weight, “depression” and “anxiety” will have no chance of stopping people with real problems from being swept up in the movement toward romance. Those people will see their conditions as non-problems and ignore even the most painfully obvious consequences of avoiding help and support.

There is importance in the words we use to describe mental illness. Language reflects the way our society thinks about things, and our thoughts impact our actions. If our words for mental illness are romanticized and weakened, we see disorders as non-issues and treat them as such. Nowadays, we can’t see nostalgia as an illness or even a problem, because the connotations are so light and poetic. The only words we currently have to describe mental illnesses are growing lighter too, with no replacement words to bring the urgency of disorders back to society’s attention. Have people gotten happier? Have soul-crushing conditions simply disappeared? Well, we are certainly starting to act like it. But unfortunately, the presence of crippling states of mind will probably never go away. The idea of the hedonic treadmill can be applied to society as a whole; we are not moving toward a utopia, and we are not eradicating mental illness from the world.

Once “depression,” “anxiety,” and others have been thoroughly romanticized, society will simply have different names for what are essentially the same problems. What is crucial, though, is that these mental illnesses are acknowledged as problems, because romanticized misery is no way to live.

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Romantic Misery