All of my friends are anxious — some have general anxiety, some are anxious and depressed, some have social anxiety — but you wouldn’t know it even if you asked. Instead, we talk about it while decidedly not talking about it, most often in texts and through the internet.
Like the recent TikTok trend that featured an audio clip about … drinking bleach from a bucket. My friend sent me one saying, “Drink a bucket of bleach or ask for help when you’re struggling,” and the audio finishes the thought: “Ah, fuck it. Give me that damn bucket.” Or when, this past winter, I would finally crawl out of my room as the sun was setting around 4 p.m. to eat something, barely hungry, and I’d joke “That’s on depression” to my roommates. The phrase “I’m going to kill myself” gets thrown around in our group chat for something as seemingly inconsequential as hitting a red light or when a favorite restaurant closes. It all sounds serious, like a cry for help — or just a joke that I’m taking too seriously? I never know if I should worry or pretend to laugh it off.
I know how this all sounds, but trust me when I say there is zero stigma around mental illness in our group — we’re not making fun of anyone else when we do this. It’s how we talk about ourselves. In a way, it’s a good thing. We’re comfortable enough to be open about this stuff, to even ask for help sometimes. But maybe not comfortable enough to engage in real, serious dialogue about what we’re going through, which sucks. I want to be able to talk about my mental health with my friends sans memes.
I first started seeing a therapist after feeling moments of sheer panic sometime in my first semester of college. I didn’t know what was normal and what wasn’t. Later, when I transferred schools, I gave up on therapy until something felt off again and I was having panic attacks every time something went wrong. Last year, I began experiencing intense stomach pains that my doctors believed were stress related, and they started me on medication for anxiety and ADHD.
I wasn’t sure how (or if I even could) to talk about it with my friends. Then I learned that some of my closest friends have been on medications and in therapy since high school, which I only found out while we were joking about how drunk we could get based on how many milligrams our antidepressants were.
“The majority of the time, my friends are all joking about their meds or joking about the ups and downs of depression,” Isabel, a 23-year-old in New York City who responded to a callout I posted on Instagram for people similarly struggling in their friend groups, tells me. “It almost feels inappropriate for me, someone who is not on medication, to want to have serious talks about it when they don’t even want to.” She describes herself as someone who hasn’t had huge mental-health battles, but when the pandemic and an unexpected breakup collided, she noticed she was starting to experience anxious thoughts. “It’s been a balancing act,” she says, “of figuring out what is appropriate to dive into and share.”
Gen Z is known for being open about mental illness. It’s also the most anxious and most depressed generation ever. A report released by the American Psychological Association shared that Gen-Zers are more likely to seek out help from mental-health professionals than people belonging to older generations because, in part, the stigma around therapy has lessened. Gen Z, my generation, is more aware of mental-health issues, so it’s more acceptable for us to talk about our experiences with these professionals. And yet, scrolling through my TikTok feed, the progress that we’ve made can feel trivialized by all of the memes and jokes. Does posting viral TikTok sounds that sing out different names of antidepressants, captioned “Smile at the one you’re on,” really count as being open? Let’s not forget the audio that said, “I don’t want to take antidepressants — what if I lose my sparkle?” Over 47,000 people shared what exactly that “sparkle” was.
I do want my friends to know what my sparkle is — just without seeing it on their “For You” page. I want them to be conscious of what I’m dealing with and then to check in with me about it in a real, taking-it-seriously sort of way. Like when I struggle to decide where I want us to go to eat because my anxiety makes me see the world as black and white, right and wrong, impacting my ability to make decisions. Instead of laughing about it or rolling their eyes, I want them to say, “There’s no wrong answer — don’t let your anxiety get in the way,” or “It’s okay — we’ll decide tonight.”
“Anxiety narrows the vision and makes it hard to see outside of your own situation,” explains Shontel Cargill, a marriage and family therapist in Georgia. She compared anxiety to social media, that what we see isn’t always what we get. Just because a friend seems more anxious or depressed doesn’t mean they are, and just because they joke about it doesn’t mean it’s not something they’re currently experiencing.
Anxiety can take you to places of irrationality, projecting our worries onto those we’re sharing them with or not allowing us to think outside ourselves. “For example,” says Miriam Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist and friendship researcher, “we might be judging ourselves and worrying whether our anxiety is ‘a big deal.’ When we ourselves are in that headspace, then we assume that other people are judging us. Those types of assumptions play a tremendous role because that affects our behavior. What we think affects how we act.”
Mayu, a 23-year-old and one of my close friends, started noticing she was feeling anxious her sophomore year of college, but after hearing about her other friends dealing with significant mental-illness diagnoses as well as grief, her anxiety felt silly. “When you’re high functioning, it’s hard to feel like you have a problem,” she says. “The most traumatic semester I had in college, I got a 4.0.” I had no idea she was anxious until she told me about it later in the year. Now she says, “I’m going to be a mess if I continue to allow for other people’s issues to determine the level of significance of my own.” And she’s right. Instead of always projecting and joking, we’ve started talking. This little moment of acknowledgment between us has already brought us closer, narrowing a gap we didn’t even realize existed. While we still send memes, we’ve been having regular serious conversations, too.
Sometimes I have my panic attacks that keep me curled up on my bed for the night, unable to make a decision on what to do. Should I get dinner with one friend? Just stay in and paint my nails? Or go get drinks with a different friend? None of the above: I break out in tears, paralyzed in a state of distress for hours. It is only then that my anxiety feels worth talking about because it’s the only thing I’m able to feel. And it is then, when they come knocking on my door, that I want to shut my friends out — when I’m too overwhelmed to even think about talking about it.
So what if we normalized talking about our anxiety before the crisis? If instead, a week earlier, I told my friend, “I feel like Saturday night is going to be very overwhelming,” and she asked “Why?” Or if next time a friend texts a depression meme, instead of “LOL,” I answer “Relatable. How are you doing, though?” Truthfully, I share memes about my anxiety, too — and I probably won’t stop anytime soon. (I mean, they are funny.) But I’m also trying just as often to be a little more intentional about checking in with my friends and communicating how much I need their check-ins in return. It’s not as easy as laughing it off, but it’s a good — better — start.