In Jest, or Depressed?

October 11, 2019

“How are you?” is a very difficult question to answer. My latest preferred method has been to mime tying a knot in my hands, slipping the imaginary loop over my head, and yanking sharply upward, tongue lolling out of the side of my mouth for emphasis. It’s one of many dark, knee-jerk reactions I have had for a long time; the only recent change is in my audience. This type of joke was standard procedure for my friends over the past few years, so coming to Georgetown required a slight realignment, an effort to temper my humor. But for all the initial shock, people seemed to adjust quickly.

Too quickly.

The trivialization of suicide or depression is not new, but neither is it entirely understood. Sarah Liberti, who spoke about the “casually suicidal” phenomenon at a 2017 TEDx conference, gave an example familiar to most of us. One of the many popular jokes she found online was, “at that point in the semester where I don’t look both ways when I J-walk.” I laughed. But Liberti is quick to put this into perspective. “I made the mistake in these situations of assuming the people were fine,” she said, postulating that this light-hearted treatment of the subject was an attempt at relatability and attention. “But what if that was their flare? What if, instead of laughing, they were screaming?” This question, and the many-sided responses to it, opens up a vital debate about the place for dark, morbid humor in casual conversation.

One person commits suicide every 40 seconds; it is the second leading cause of death among those aged 15-24. By the time you reach this sentence, someone else will have taken their own life. 

Suicide is not in itself a funny matter—not by a long shot. But neither is it fair to say that anyone who jokes about it is cruel or lacks any knowledge of the subject matter. Much of the initial response to this kind of humor is anger at the way it seems to belittle one of the most terrifying human experiences. Doing poorly on a quiz or even having a bad week is certainly not a reason to kill yourself. Yet, just within the last week, I’ve heard comments like, “this class makes me want to die,” “might as well go hang myself after that grade,” and “if they’re closed, I’m gonna shoot myself.” These types of jokes are not only tasteless, they also undermine the use of dark humor as a way to seek community and help when someone feels uncomfortable being wholly open. 

However, despite initial instinct, paying closer attention to these jokes may reveal that they are not always callous, not always exaggeration. Kevin Breel, another student TEDx speaker, said, “We live in a world where, when you break your arm, everyone runs over to sign the cast, but when you have depression, everyone runs the other way.” Suggestions to “perk up” or “get over it” exhibit the way we think about mental illnesses as less legitimate than physical ones. In order to get through to people, many of us resort to humor. Through jokes that seem a little too dark to just gloss over but still somehow fall within the standards of social acceptability, we are insisting that you notice, iwn our own quiet way. 

Breel won multiple awards for theater and English in high school, kept up a social life, and was captain of an athletic team. He was also thinking about taking his own life. If he had just come forward and said he suffered from depression, people would have pointed to these outward-facing facts as evidence against his confession. But the two are not mutually exclusive, and until our culture is no longer one of stigma and fear, humor, as twisted as it appears, is an effective way of bridging the gap. An Atlantic article about the prevalence of memes with suicidal humor shared online noted, “Typically, suicide memers aren’t mocking suicidal thoughts; they’re commiserating and bonding over being suicidal.” The intention of making these jokes in person is similar, a subtle attempt to find out who in the social setting understands what it is like to live with depression and seriously consider ending one’s own life. 

When I came to Georgetown, I used depression humor to gauge the level of identification those around me had with issues of mental illness. Clearly, this is an approach with the potential to go very wrong, but it nonetheless remains a common way of building a foundation for social bonds. Ruby Wax, a comedian and diagnosed clinical depressive, pointed out that with physical ailments, people want evidence, they want to “see the lump,” but with depression, there’s nothing readily available to show.

In a way, dark humor plays the role of a physical symptom. It’s something tangible, or at least  more easily recognizable, that I can point to when I appear to be physically sound. 

Liberti concluded her talk by saying we tend to overshare online and undershare in person. That may be changing to some extent as people become more comfortable discussing mental illness offline, but there is still a long way to go before depressives no longer have to hide behind humor to let someone know they are hurting. Humor acts in a similar way to online interaction, where those sharing do not have to directly engage with the audience on an honest level. Online, the separation is evident in physical distance as well as a kind of constructed social media persona. Communicating via humor creates a platform to share a message, but taking the seriousness out of the interaction decreases the likelihood of getting caught up in a deeper discussion with more targeted, in-person engagement about depression and suicidal ideation.

The onus for paying greater attention and reaching out is not entirely on the audience or those without personal experience of depression. Those of us who use these jokes as a way of coping or connecting could benefit from trying to be more open and direct. So the next time I say I feel like jumping out the window, I would appreciate the response, “Do a flip.” But I also appreciate genuine concern instead of being held at arm’s length, someone to listen and know that what I may treat as a joke is an expression of an underlying struggle. After all, the line between a laugh and a scream is not always clear.

Image Credit: Carina Dahmani

Paul James
Paul is the editor for sexual violence advocacy, prevention and coverage and a student in the SFS, class of 2023, studying Culture and Politics. His favorite color is grey, spelled correctly.

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