November 29, 2021

How Social Media Turned ‘Prioritizing Mental Health’ Into a Trap

Not long ago, signs of mental distress in young female stars — Britney Spears’s shaving her head, Amanda Bynes’s spiraling online — were milked by tabloids in lurid, exploitative ways. But a new celebrity mode casts mental health as an appealing badge of vulnerability. Demi Lovato has starred in three documentaries addressing the subject. Selena Gomez’s cosmetics line promotes mental-health education in schools. When Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles exited competitions, citing mental-health concerns, they were praised. Now Dixie can document her breakdown on her own terms, fashioning it as not humiliating but redemptive.

Yet this rising awareness can also flatten a constellation of medical and social phenomena into one blandly ubiquitous buzzword. “The D’Amelio Show” gestures at “mental-health issues” or simply “mental health,” a phrase Dixie deploys as though it means its opposite. (She says her boyfriend is inexperienced in dealing with “people with mental health.”) To say “mental health” is to not say “mental illness,” eliding specific diagnoses and more stigmatized, less marketable symptoms. An incisive TikTok by a 16-year-old underlines the point: “Let’s just make clear the difference between caring for mental HEALTH,” her text reads, over images of thin women blending juices or journaling on a lawn, “VS. caring for mental ILLNESS” — waiting rooms, paperwork, medications. The self-care narrative, with its air of drama and resilience, has an aspirational quality. Prioritizing mental health becomes both a brave accomplishment and a luxury. It all encourages more investment in social media, not less.

On “The D’Amelio Show,” Dixie and Charli each seek professional help. In addition to (offscreen) therapy sessions, Charli enlists a dance trainer for sessions she says are “like therapy without words,” and Dixie consults a doctor of osteopathic medicine to treat her anxiety. But the dance instructor has a TikTok following of his own, and the D.O. is also a Lululemon ambassador. They blend easily with the rest of the family’s entourage — the vocal coach, the A.R. woman, the president of D’Amelio Family Enterprises.

No matter how many times they are burned, the D’Amelio sisters return, mothlike, to TikTok.

“The D’Amelio Show” positions mental-health concerns as part of the human condition, but this family’s woes seem inextricable from social media. (Even the most resilient teenage girl could be brought to tears by a public humiliation involving millions of Vogue consumers.) And yet the prospect of Dixie and Charli’s solving this problem by abandoning fame — with Charli returning to what she calls “normal high school” — is treated as a sad outcome, akin to letting the haters win. Charli expresses gratitude for the “opportunities” she is afforded, like internet stars’ joining her for dinner or Bebe Rexha’s singing at her birthday party. Many of these rewards seem engineered for the show, but they unfold with frightening realism, as the family’s life becomes a march of stage-managed events.

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