‘Meme’ was a term originally coined by Richard Dawkins, to mean the cultural equivalent of a gene, something that is passed from brain to brain. Most of us see memes on the internet, usually an image with a witty caption attached.
You’re probably familiar with memes like distracted boyfriend or woman yelling at cat from your social media feeds. Memes are generally funny and light-hearted, but there is an increasing amount of mental health related memes, in particular so-called depression memes, which depict sadness, death, suicide, and sadness.
These memes can be distressing, but what if they could also be helpful? There’s evidence to suggest that people with depression use humour in a different way, so maybe they use memes as a coping mechanism.
So we decided to investigate how depression influences the perception of depression-related memes. We surveyed 200 people from the UK aged 18–56, and asked them to complete a depression questionnaire. We then grouped them based on the severity of their depressive symptoms – 43 people had significant depression scores, and 56 did not.
Then we showed them examples of depressive and neutral memes (see images below), and asked them to rate the humour, relatability, shareability, and mood-improving potential of each meme. We also asked them to complete a questionnaire on how well they can regulate their emotions.
We found that the depressed group found the depression memes funnier and more relatable than those in the non-depressed control group. The depressed group also thought that these memes could improve their mood, whereas the depressed group didn’t. They were also more likely to report sharing depression-related memes and believed these memes could improve the mood of others with depression.
Both groups perceived the memes differently, and we found that this was influenced by how they regulate their emotions. Depressed people had difficulties using emotion regulation strategies, and this was an important factor in explaining why they enjoyed depressive memes more than non-depressed people.
They may be using memes and dark humour to help reinterpret events and emotions (a form of cognitive reappraisal), to compensate for a lack of other emotion regulation strategies.
Depression and mental health related memes sometimes have a bad reputation for being harmful or actively promoting mental illness. But our research demonstrates that they can have the opposite effect in people with depression.
Memes are transforming the way we talk about mental health, they can help to destigmatise mental health conditions. They can allow people to be vulnerable in a controlled way, using humour to communicate about sensitive topics. The sharing of memes could also allow people with depression and mental health conditions to form bonds with others, as part of a supportive online community.
So could memes be used to help improve the mood of people with depression? More research is needed, as we only know that our participants think they could improve their mood. But there could be a potential therapeutic use for memes.
There are some psychotherapists out there who are using memes as a part of their practice, and therapy memes are increasingly popular. Bart Andrews (a clinical psychologist and member at the American Association of Suicidology) advocates that suicide-related memes can promote meaningful conversations around mental health, and provide an alternative to destructive thoughts and behaviour.
Overall, our findings suggest that even if the content of depression memes are interpreted as negative and pessimistic by some, people with depression may get something positive out of them. A picture is worth a thousand words, and a meme can communicate complex emotional content immediately. It’s possible then, that memes have a capacity to heal, by providing a way for people to communicate about emotions and mental health more openly. We may see ‘meme therapy’ in the very near future!
Getting help and advice
If you or someone you care about needs help or advice about depression or mental health, there are lots of resources and organisations which can help. A good first place to start is your own doctor who can signpost you to the help and support available. If you are in the UK, you can also get further advice from the NHS.
Image credit: Know Your Meme
Dr Jennifer Drabble is a Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University, and a chartered psychologist (CPsychol) with the British Psychological Society.