Our culture of shared suffering and the Hopkins meme page

By AMADEA SMITH | September 6, 2018

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COURTESY OF WILLIAM CHO. 

This is just one example of the kinds of memes posted on the page. 

“When you look down from the top level of Brody Atrium: I wonder if a fall from this height would be enough to kill me.” 

This is a typical meme post on the “Hopkins Memes for My Lost Hopes and Dreams” Facebook page. 

When I first saw this meme pop up on my screen, I was shocked. I logically understood that this Facebook page is known for satire, but, emotionally, I felt triggered. When I say “triggered,” I don’t mean the way your friend feels when someone brings up the “horrors” of organic chemistry. 

As someone who has struggled with mental health issues for many years, I felt that this colorful picture of a iconic children’s cartoon character joking about suicide diminished the potency and seriousness of the pain of wanting to take one’s life. 

But this thought was promptly interrupted by the pressing question: What compelled this person to post this meme? Did he/she find it funny? Cathartic? Relatable? 

I decided to dissect the implications of this meme in an observant, non-judgemental manner. I wondered: What kind of different feelings does this meme elicit from the 361 people who “liked” the post on Facebook? 

For how many Hopkins students is the meme page the first exposure to any kind of discussion of stress, anxiety, depression, suicidality? 

Perhaps the inherent ambiguity of the specific struggles or intentions of the people posting the memes and those “liking” them is what transforms mental-health issues into a larger culture of struggle. 

In the highly competitive atmosphere of Hopkins exists the visceral expectation that most students are stressed, anxious or depressed, that emotional hardship is integral to the Hopkins identity. 

Could it be that the meme page functions as a platform for a communal sense of suffering, in which it is seemingly “trendy” to reveal some sort of emotional strife to others and receive validation of pain, both real and fabricated? 

It seems that, through the meme page, many students can sinuously jump in and out of the dialogue and plight of emotional struggle; they can simultaneously partake in and deny having mental-health issues through a medium that creates an aspect of relatability through satire and comedy. 

While the meme page normalizes mental-health issues, it also trivializes them. Rarely do the mental health issues expressed on the meme page encompass much other than those that are strictly academic.

At Hopkins, academic anxiety, academic depression and academic stress are vastly different from the anxiety, depression, and stress that lack the comforting, convenient and commonplace identifier: “academic.” 

The assumption that everyone is “suffering” minimizes the extremely difficult battles of mental illness that many individuals have to fight every day. Those people do not have the privilege or ability to experience pain when they chose (or when everyone else is doing it) and then extract themselves from that pain and go on living. 

And yet, because academic suffering has become normative, if someone is not struggling, then they must not be trying hard enough. They’re the odd one out. 

On the other hand, a collective atmosphere of shared strife combats the flawed yet prevalent conception that high-functioning people are free of pain or adversity. Typically Hopkins students are particularly successful, motivated, courageous. But these qualities do not preclude pain or plight. 

Paradoxically it seems that, based on commonplace stereotypes and community norms, Hopkins students are either inundated by school-related stress or thriving with smiles stapled on their never-fatigued, always determined faces. And ultimately, neither of these conceptions of mental health are entirely true or beneficial to efforts to destigmatize mental illness and provide support to those who need it. 

September is Suicide Awareness Month.

According to the CDC, suicide is currently the second leading cause of death (ages 10-30). 

If you or someone you know is suffering the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, provides free, 24/7 confidential support through their toll free hotline at 1-800-273-8255. 

The Counseling Center can be reached at 410-516-8278 during normal business hours. In case of an emergency outside of normal hours, a counselor on call can be reached through Security at 410-516-7777. Campus Ministries may be reached at 410-516-1880. 

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