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Can Memes Benefit Mental Wellness?

The social phenomenon could be used to boost mental well-being.

Key points

  • Memes are more ubiqitous in the culture than mental health knowledge.
  • Memes may help to bridge a gap in communication between therapists and clients.
  • Memes may help foster mental wellness, but should be used with understanding.
Pexels/Polina Tankillevitch
Source: Pexels/Polina Tankillevitch

We are living in the age of the internet meme revolution. If you log onto one of your socials right now you’re likely to come across one, if not several, as you scroll. Maybe you liked one, or shared one—and maybe you even brought one up in your last therapy session. Okay, that last one may sound like a bit of reach bit of a reach, but as a therapist, educator, and advocate, I don’t think it needs to be. I have been using memes in therapy both as a client and as a creative counselor for years, and I want to share why you may want to consider doing the same:

  • It fits its original purpose. The origin of the word “meme” stems from work by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Similar to the way a gene would transfer biological properties from one person to another, a meme conveys cultural information from one individual to another. While it’s common to refine the conceptualization of culture to an ethnic group, in actuality culture encompasses the shared beliefs, patterns, practices, values, behaviors, and customs of any group of people (e.g., Gen Z, gamers, Redditors). Considering this etymology, a meme can be used to provide a valuable information, cultural that can help to foster understanding and communication whether you’re chatting with a friend or speaking with a therapist.
  • Memes are more widespread than mental health knowledge. While this is a sad truth, it’s the reality we have to face. Let’s be honest: Most of us did not have the luxury of taking Mental Health 101 in our early years. While mental health awareness continues to expand, folks are beginning to recognize that filling this deficit could help to boost their wellness. The dilemma has evolved. Millions of people aiming to learn about mental health, but don’t know where to turn. Cue the internet. You can easily have a meme at your fingertips, but formal mental health education (i.e., class, therapy) may not be as accessible.

Normalizing mental health

In recent years, we have faced a loneliness epidemic. The pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic and physical distancing have only exacerbated the problem. Isolation inhibits mental wellness and, as expected, mental health problems have been on the rise. When we are disconnected from one another, the struggle is harder. You may question if you are facing a problem: What should I do? Does anyone else understand? In this vulnerable time, if you come across a mental health meme, you may feel seen. As isolated as you may feel in that moment, the fact of the matter is that someone somewhere made a meme that relates to your experience. Recognizing that can help to normalize your experience and minimize your sense of isolation. On top of that, seeing the meme's popularity (i.e., likes, comments, reshares) helps to normalize what you’re enduring.

A place for memes in counseling

The courage to begin mental health therapy is often a cornerstone to mental wellness, but it’s only the beginning. From there, you are tasked with finding the right provider, developing a strong therapeutic alliance, and exchanging meaningful conversations. All of this can sound much easier than it is in reality. In an instance in which there may be a gap in communication, a meme, loaded with nuanced detail in one small graphic, could help to fill that void. For example, say the quintessential question of therapy comes up but a client is at a loss for words to accurately describe their experience an apt reference could help to bridge the gap.

It could go like this:

Counselor: “…and how does that make you feel?”

Client: “I don’t know.”

Or like this:

Counselor: “…and how does that make you feel?”

Client: “I don’t know what the feeling is but it reminds me of this one meme...”

In the former, the provider needs to find a way to reroute the client to help better assess the situation. In the latter, the counselor can join with the client to use the meme as a resource in better understanding the client’s experience. After the meme is shared, the counselor may be able to deduce and reflect the client's feeling. Or the counselor could continue to scaffold the client's emotional intelligence by providing an additional resource such as a feelings wheel or emotional vocabulary list. Together, the pair could collaborate to find the appropriate feeling(s).

Source: Pexels/cottonbro

Even without the counselor's prompting, there can be a place for memes in therapy if a provider is open to a client proactively using them as a reference for emotional intelligence. For example, a client may begin a session with an update from a recent event. While they may struggle to discern the emotion, they may have already connected their experience to a meme. Bringing the meme up without being probed could help the pair accelerate processing.

If you asked me a few years ago, I’m not sure I would have predicted how common it would be for memes to be utilized in my office. After bringing this up with colleagues and individuals who are in counseling, I began to notice that memes could have more mental wellness value than we think.

This is anecdotal, and I hope to provide quantitative data in the future, but at the end of the day, lived experience is data in and of itself. I know I sound like a meme advocate, but it is important for me to yield a few words of caution: Memes could be used as a resource for promoting the overall goal of counseling, but overuse could inhibit a client from developing emotional intelligence (e.g., establishing emotional vocabulary). In addition, while a little light humor can be helpful in rapport building, memes should not be used to deflect from the root(s) of the issue(s). There are a wide variety of therapeutic styles, and this utilization may not be a good fit for everyone. If you are a provider, practice your own familiarity with memes before integrating them into your practice. Finally, while memes may have the potential to serve mental wellness, they do not replace therapy.

More from Shainna Ali Ph.D., LMHC, NCC
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