Sadness is a sensation

By Pearl Benjamin | Mar 14, 2019

My family always says about the cruelty of Maine winters, “It’s not the cold that gets you, and it’s not the dark. It’s the cold and the dark.” Late winter is the hardest time of the year -- the rapid switching between snowstorms and mudslides, the constant grayness, the hope of an approaching spring that is repeatedly buried in sleet. This is when Mainers break out the fish oil. It’s hard not to mimic the weather. We’re all just as gray as the sky, and it’s at least 10 times worse for us high school students, who are stuck inside with our flu-ridden peers five days a week. Sadness is on the rise among teenagers right now. Every generation has its own version of teen gloom. Today it looks like a Chuck’s-wearing, bomber-jacketed, beanie-headed hipster.

Misery has become a trendy epidemic. A casual sob story about using drugs to drown out one’s feelings is now an artful sensation. Older generations can recognize the boy in the black hoodie whose mysterious misery must surely make him attractive. In my generation, girls take on that persona, too. There’s something about today’s vogue of oversized dark clothing that just goes so well with the statement “My life is falling apart, ha ha!”

Recently, there’s been a surge in pop culture icons who are both artists and fashion influencers. Young creators like Billie Eilish make waves in the media by dressing daringly and writing songs about real, raw subjects – in Ellish's case, depression. As a Billie Eilish fan, I can see how the dark subject matter she sings about is all tangled up with her style, and how teenagers modeling her might do the same thing. I sometimes joke about teens being miserably chic with a quip like, “My depression caused me to wear this black beanie that I really just threw on in the morning because I don’t care about life, but also it happens to be very in style.”

I have no right to be making fun of kids like this because I am one. I have fallen victim to misery chic, and have participated in the same seemingly competitive conversations about being sad and miserable. But here’s the thing: misery chic isn’t just silly, and making fun of it isn’t just mean. Misery chic, and our response to it, can be damaging.

Sensationalizing depression means that teenagers now mention their suicidal tendencies, drug and alcohol abuse, and other untreated mental illnesses in casual conversation. While it is always healthy to talk about mental illness without stigma, it doesn’t do any good if no one’s paying attention to it. In an age where talking about our untreated mental illnesses makes us more on-trend, some of us might not pick up on the fact that some friends need real help. We might just assume it’s a play for attention, or an attempt to join the artfully miserable ranks of our peers. I’ve made this mistake many times.

Many teenagers do suffer from real, genuine depression during their adolescence, and all teenagers deserve to get help. When someone mentions suicidal thoughts in a conversation, it is always safer to take them completely seriously rather than assuming that they’re “doing it for attention.” Misery chic has desensitized all of us to the real warning signs of depression, and we are no longer taking action when we should.

Because misery is now cool, we all have a compelling excuse to avoid seeking help for our own mental illnesses. For someone who is lonely, anxious, confused and depressed, gaining acceptance from being sad might feel pretty good – just good enough to prevent them from confronting their troubles and getting help. This, too, is very dangerous. I’ve seen friends continue too long on a serious downward spiral because they’re so immersed in the commiseration they’re receiving for not getting help.

It’s unrealistic not to expect some kind of misery at this time of year. It’s very real and very common right now, especially among us teens.

But just because it’s everywhere, and just because it’s fashionable does not make it illegitimate. From now on, I’m going to stop sensationalizing my own sadness. I’ll also stop assuming I understand my friends’ misery. When friends bring up their depression in a conversation, I’m going to do my best to express my concern and convince them to get help. I’ll try to make sure they understand that their sadness is not a joke and not a fashion statement -- it is real, and it can be dangerous.

Comments (2)
Posted by: Alison S McKellar | Mar 18, 2019 23:21

And not just applicable to teenagers. Well done. Your writing turns this often avoided topic into an engaging and insightful read.



Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Mar 14, 2019 14:22

It is dangerous, Pearl. Thanks for another insightful article. Please, know that you are listened to. Your voice is heard and taken seriously; by many I am sure.



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