Former first lady Michelle Obama told late night host Stephen Colbert this week that she suffers from ‘low-grade depression’ and anxiety.
If you rolled your eyes at that self-diagnosis, you’re not alone. Mrs Obama has joined the hordes of celebrities who have publicly spoken about dealing with anxiety disorder, including Kim Kardashian, Selena Gomez, Cardi B, Adele and Jennifer Lawrence. Apparently this is supposed to make these mega-rich, ultra privileged individuals more relatable to the average human. I mean, who doesn’t get a bit nervous before embarking on a worldwide singing tour or giving a ‘thank you’ speech after receiving an Oscar?
According to Medical News Today, ‘anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US,’ affecting about 40 million American adults, with millennials as the most afflicted generation. Depression and anxiety diagnoses are increasing each year. Those who take this trend at face value would argue that people are simply more open about their mental health struggles in today’s society. However, Cockburn has noticed that there is a disturbing rise of mental illness being romanticized on social media and in popular culture. Pumping out memes about constant self-deprecation, visits to the therapist, and joyfully canceling plans makes depression seem cool and trendy. Online influencers promise that you can cure your ailments by participating in ‘self-care’, which usually advises throwing away your responsibilities in favor of drawing a hot bath, opening a bottle of wine, and binging another Netflix series.
Thus you have a slate of young people conflating occasional sadness and other uncomfortable feelings with chemical imbalances in the brain, and then ‘treating’ themselves through instant gratification.
Mrs Obama unknowingly hit on this issue in her Colbert interview.
‘This is a part of life. Nobody rides life on a high,’ Obama said. ‘And I think it’s important for young people to know that. No, you’re not going to feel great all the time. There are moments in all of our lives, particularly in the middle of a pandemic and racial unrest, you’re gonna feel a kind of way about it, so give yourself a break.’
Yet Mrs Obama, instead of reassuring young people that it’s completely normal and not a sign of mental illness to feel down sometimes, irresponsibly classifies those feelings as ‘low-grade depression’.
Cockburn sympathizes with people who have real mental health problems. But he cannot help but scoff at people who think they are seriously ill because they get a touch of social anxiety before making a phone call or become sad when they discover their crush doesn’t like them back. This trend is even more toxic when employed by the most privileged people in the world, such as Mrs Obama or Meghan Markle, the former royal who claimed to have ‘anxiety attacks’ because of her treatment by the British press. It is no doubt a boomer trope to urge people to toughen up a bit, but sometimes it is indeed necessary.