“When you’re not sure if you managed your anxiety or if you stopped caring about anything,” reads a meme accompanied by a photo of singer Billie Eilish at the 2020 Oscars giving a suspicious side-eye.
This meme, like a multitude of others on social media, coveys a personal experience with mental health issues. Stress, politics, financial struggle and national crisis are other serious areas that memes generate from.
Why do so many Millennials and Gen Z on social media express difficult feelings and challenges in a way that is both comedic and second nature?
“Probably because the way we communicate is so different,” says Natalie Johnson, senior. “And probably the same reason why we laugh in awkward situations to ease tension. Also, when you’re completely powerless against something out of your control, sometimes laughing about it is all you can really do,” she says.
Social media during the 2019 holiday season was a direct representation of this notion. Out of anxiety over Kim Jong-Un’s ominous “Christmas gift” to the U.S., Twitter was saturated with memes made and shared by Millennials who would be powerless in a potential nuclear attack.
“Me waking up and realizing North Korea got a Christmas gift for us today,” says a meme that uses a photo of Squidward Tentacles waking up with fear-stricken, veiny eyes.
Another notable example of using humor when powerless: The excessive and more controversial World War III memes that spawned early January.
“Me after I fake my death to avoid getting drafted,” says a meme with a video of a man emerging from a coffin.
These memes were in response to Trump authorizing the attack that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. They led to a discussion about World War III memes being insensitive when considering what extent Americans would be directly impacted as opposed to Iranians.
While memes are a product of social media’s role in our current society, the utilization of humor in the face of distressing events and feelings has always been practiced.
“I don’t think this is unusual for this generation,” says professor and co-chair of psychology, Dr. Drago. “I mean, you look at political cartoons and they also used humor and sarcasm to deal with very difficult situations. This generation is more creative. I don’t think it’s unusual to use humor in this way at all.”
Regarding difficult situations that do directly affect us, such as mental illness, using dark humor in the form of memes reminds individuals that they are not alone.
“It [memes] brings people together, it passes it on. In classes, I use cartoons a lot to show something as well” says Dr. Drago.
With the advancement of social media and technology, the eruption of memes and their uses feels only natural.
“It makes perfect sense that our generation, when presented with an endless variety of harsh realities, reflects very dark realms of the human experience in our humor,” says Sean Catino, senior. “Although it may disrespect the horror some situations should elicit, it definitely makes it easier to deal with.”
Many of those who create depression and anxiety memes believe they are coping in the process. Students seem to agree.
“Humor, as a psychological mechanism is used defensively in our psyche to deal with much of our trauma and helps make topics more digestible for us,” Sean says.
“Even though our generation tends to be more progressive, it’s interesting that we use a lot of dark humor over the internet to cope and joke about intense topics,” says Natalie.
“People use jokes to make the news easier to handle because otherwise, it would be so grim. On social media platforms you’re already making jokes often,” says Sanjana Patel, junior.
I asked Dr. Drago if he believes the term “coping” is applicable to Millennials and Gen Zs sharing these kinds of memes.
“If I was talking to someone individually, I would ask ‘Could you explain…’ Coping means something different for everyone. I don’t know what it means in this case. It’s very difficult to generalize as the motives people have to vary greatly and people could behave for various reasons. There is no checklist of symptoms.”
Does he think using humor to deal with sadness and difficulty is healthy?
“I do, absolutely,” he says. “It creates a little distance from the potentially difficult situation. Humor could diffuse that anxiety and be relatively healthy.”
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