PSA: Memes About Mental Illness As A 'Spiritual Problem' Perpetuate Dangerous Myths

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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We like to claim we understand mental illness. We like to say that we know mental illness is a disease, not a moral failure. That we know it’s not the fault of the person who’s dealing with it, but instead the result of brain chemistry gone awry. We’re enlightened people. We know that people with mental illness are not to blame for their conditions, no more than a patient with lupus, or a woman with polycystic ovarian syndrome. Something just doesn’t work right. It’s our job to give them space and grace to cope with their illness, to help them, to understand what they’re going through. To respond to their symptoms with understanding. Because mental illness is a disease.

Because we know mental illness is a disease, we treat it. There are many treatment options out there. For example, as someone who copes with ADHD, bipolar 2, and generalized anxiety disorder, I take a handful of meds every day. Mydayis treats my ADHD. It lets me live a productive life free from spaciness, disorganization, and chaos. Lamictal keeps my mood on an even keel and prevents deep depressive episodes that can plunge me into suicidal thoughts. Klonopin and Wellbutrin treat crippling anxiety that will leave me terrified of strangers, unable to leave the house, paralyzed by a fear that my husband will die at any second. I need these drugs to stay functional and sane. I need them to cope with life. I need them to parent.

Unfortunately, some people don’t believe any of this. And some of these people spread their harmful messages far and wide on the internet. The page “Empaths, Old Souls, and Introverts” decided to jump on the anti-mental health bandwagon when they posted a meme blaming those will mental illness for their own problems. “There’s no chemical solution to a spiritual problem,” claims their in-house created meme. Which infers that my meds are a “chemical solution” to something deeply wrong with — get this line of bullshit — not my brain, but my spirit. My soul. Apparently, my brain works fine, yo. It’s my soul that needs some serious work.

Who’s to blame for my mental illness, in other words? Me, myself, and I.

If I just did some serious soul-work, if I just tried a little harder, in other words, I could flush those meds down the drain (or turn them back into my pharmacy, which would be the more responsible route to take).

Let’s say this again, in case you didn’t get it: this page is blaming people with mental illness for their illness. It’s like saying, “Too bad, your fault you’re infertile. Maybe you should just try harder.” Or “You know how you have rheumatoid arthritis? Maybe if you did some work on your inner spirit, you could get rid of it.”

Fuck that noise.

The mental illness I deal with is a function of the way my brain works. According to My ADHD, “Current research indicates the frontal lobe, basal ganglia, caudate nucleus, cerebellum, as well as other areas of the brain, play a significant role in ADHD,” and “ADHD is a medical disorder, and it can be caused by a number of factors that affect how the brain develops and functions.” According to the Mayo Clinic, people with bipolar disorder appear to have physical changes in their brains. The Mayo Clinic also says that generalized anxiety disorder “likely arises from a complex interaction of biological and environmental factors, which may include differences in brain chemistry and function.” Basically, every single one of my mental illnesses is caused by physical differences in my brain function or brain chemistry. I am not to blame for any of them. I can’t fix them.

But I can take drugs that fix them.

These drugs are not a band-aid for some deep spiritual problem. Unfortunately, if I don’t take them, I tend to become suicidal, which is, on some level, a spiritual problem. So one could argue that these drugs actually protect me from spiritual problems. Like, you know, not plunging into existential despair.

These memes are dangerous and they need to end NOW. I know better than to believe them; they just make me angry. But they’re one of the reasons that mental illness remains so stigmatized in America today. According to ADDitude Magazine, 4.4% of adults have ADHD; only 20% of those seek treatment for it. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says, “Approximately 2.3 million Americans are presently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but the number affected by this disorder is even greater.” In fact, according to Mental Health Policy, the NIMH says that in any given year, a staggering 51% of people with “severe bipolar disorder received no treatment,” along with “40% of those with schizophrenia.”

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says only 36.9% of those suffering from anxiety receive treatment. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance says, “Despite its high treatment success rate, nearly two out of three people suffering with depression do not actively seek nor receive proper treatment. An estimated 50% of unsuccessful treatment for depression is due to medical non-compliance.”

Basically, people with major mental health issues are refusing to seek treatment.


Because they think it’s their fault that they’re suffering. They think that if they just tried a little bit harder, they would be able to cope. The National Alliance On Mental Illness says, “Approximately one in five (17%) respondents to the public survey believe that people with bipolar disorder can control their illness without medication if they really want to do so.” One study reported that 32.4% of people with bipolar disorder will attempt suicide, and between 4% and 19% will complete it. That’s a terrifying connection to make. People blame themselves for their own mental illnesses–with dire consequences.

That’s why memes like this are so dangerous.

That’s why we need to speak out against these messages whenever we can.

That’s why we need to assure those with mental illness, over and over, that their illness are not their fault, are not a “spiritual problem,” and can be helped with proper medical intervention. That they are not something to be ashamed of.

Because only when we remove bullshit like this from public discourse will we remove the stigma.

And only when we remove the stigma from mental illness will we see needless suffering end.

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