When Briana Milman was fired from her job, she hit a new low. She'd been struggling with depression for years. She spent her days sleeping and nights drinking at bars until close. She felt aimless and miserable, like she'd reached a dead end.
In her newfound spare time, Milman started looking at memes on Reddit, many of which centered on mental health issues. She began sharing some of her favorites on Facebook. Soon, Milman was also posting memes to her Instagram page Hauntedtoilet. People she hadn't seen in years began reaching out to tell her how happy her content made them feel.
"There was a solace I found in laughing for a little while," says Milman, now an editor at Memebase, a site that aggregates online content. "I felt really good that my sense of humor was being praised."
Milman, 30, isn't alone. Memes tackling existential crises and mental health have become an outlet for people seeking light in even the darkest struggles. Topics like depression, debt and failed relationships are regularly explored on meme pages on Facebook, Instagram, Reddit and Twitter. The memes help to defuse situations with humor and to reinforce common experiences, bringing people from all walks of life together.
"Seeing a meme and instantly relating to it makes you think whatever thoughts you have, you aren't alone," says Xavi Fajardo, who runs the Instagram meme page sarcasm_only. "It's comforting to see other people feel the same way."
While many memes center on lighter topics such as celebrities, pets and internet phenomena, others address more serious issues like mental health. Reddit threads such as 2meirl4meirl and Facebook groups like Anxiety & Depression Memes are filled with posts addressing suicidal thoughts and anxiety. "If you laugh at your pain it makes it easier to deal with sucky feelings and stuff," the Facebook group's description reads.
Psychologists say that can be true. Some people who struggle with suicidal thoughts or depression may find comfort in talking about those issues using dark humor, says psychologist April Foreman. Playful communication styles found in memes can be an effective way to address tough topics. But people should also take whatever relief they get with a grain of salt.
"Feeling better is not necessarily equivalent to reducing your risk," Foreman says. "A lot of people who get emotional relief might not get risk reduction from that emotional relief."
Still, memes can serve as both a healthy distraction and a conversation starter, says clinical social worker Connie Salvayon. Importantly, they can allow someone to feel like they're not alone.
"Talking more about mental health is always positive, and memes are this interesting way of having conversations about different mental health experiences," Salvayon says. "Mindfulness isn't always possible for everyone where you are, so it's OK to distract yourself sometimes."
A coping mechanism
Instagram user @namaste.at.home.dad began posting memes soon after quitting drugs about three years ago. Much of her content centers on drug addiction, and many of her followers connect with each other in the comments section to discuss their struggles. Some have even told her they got clean because of advice or inspiration they gleaned from her posts.
"More people started reaching out to me asking about my experience and telling me that I helped them feel less alone in theirs," she says. "It's very fulfilling. It really is therapeutic."
Tackling topics like depression and suicide by joking about them can seem counterintuitive, but humor can actually be a powerful coping mechanism, Salvayon says. Memes allow people to explore things that are challenging and find light in them. Studies have also found that laughter can help us tackle tough situations and relax.
George Resch, director of influencer marketing at BrandFire and meme maker behind the Instagram account Tank Sinatra, says cracking jokes about an issue doesn't necessarily mean you're brushing it aside.
"Some people deal with things by joking about them," Resch says. "That's the way they process them. It's dealing with it in a way that helps you understand it."
That's not to say humor is an effective tool for everyone. Using memes to talk about suicide can make some people worse, Foreman says. For others, it's an effective avenue for communication.
Ultimately, Salvayon says, people with mental health diagnoses should seek professional help.
"You need to see anything on social media as a supplement," she says, "not a replacement for mental health treatment."
Dealing with the internet's dark side
The internet can also be a dark place for someone struggling with their mental health. Platforms like Facebook and Reddit are rife with comments tearing down users based on their beliefs and experiences. Studies have also shown that spending more time on social media is linked to increased depression and other mental health problems.
It's important for people to be mindful of how content on social media affects them, and to gauge whether memes about depression make them feel understood rather than hopeless and anxious, Salvayon says.
There's also the risk that memes, like any online content, can be overtaken by bad actors. Pepe the Frog, for example, went from being a harmless meme to a hate symbol after it was co-opted by white nationalists. Those kinds of hateful memes can be triggering to the people they target.
But in many cases, the good outweighs the bad. For people like Lola Tash, an admin behind Instagram meme account My Therapist Says, memes can lessen the anxiety around topics like work and relationships. Tash has seen friendships form in the comments section of posts as people offer words of support to one another.
In fact, it became so clear that people were using memes as an outlet to deal with various challenges that a few months ago, My Therapist Says launched an account called My Therapist Helps. The new account is focused on destigmatizing mental health issues with posts on self-love and encouragement.
"It's not that we're popularizing being sad," Tash says. "It's that we're normalizing talking about issues."
Milman, the editor of Memebase, says she's still struggling with depression, but is doing much better now. She thinks other people could also benefit from the sense of relief and community memes provide.
"There are a lot of lonely people in the world," Milman says. "If they can find a place for themselves, whether it's on Instagram or Reddit, that's an amazing thing."