Mental Health and Social Media Panel at Stanford University (Transcription)

Note: This is a transcription of the presentation given on February 1, 2019 at Stanford University on the Mental Health and Social Media Panel/Discussion.

My name is Cori Amato Hartwig, also known as @manicpixiememequeen on Instagram. I make memes about lighthearted topics like mental illness, the patriarchy, capitalism, relationship issues, and the increasingly complicated navigation of modern society. I started the account in March of 2017. At the time, I was a junior at San Francisco State, and I had just been through a yearlong rollercoaster ride of trial-and-error psychiatric treatment in an attempt to find a medication that worked for me, and the month before starting the account, my uncle attempted suicide. Sitting in my bed sporting my new trademarked Mental Breakdown Haircut, I created a new Instagram profile called @manicpixiememequeen, partially out of boredom and partially out of my desperation to channel my personal turmoil into something that felt productive.

Originally, the account was anonymous and existed more as a “finsta” rather than a cohesive meme account, but as the account became popular and went viral, I took ownership of the account and I personally came into the character of @manicpixiememequeen as a public persona. Over time, I wove a narrative around my own mental health issues and personal life through creating memes, and I shared my content with an audience who shockingly, understood my narrative in their own personal ways.

Currently, I have over 97,000 followers on Instagram, which is absolutely wild. Clearly, I’m not the only person in the world struggling with mental health issues or having some difficulty navigating our weird and absurd world. While my brain loves to tell me that no one else really understands and then I perceive isolation, the evidence against this is in the numbers—my audience, the engagement on the posts, the hundreds of messages I receive from people across the globe telling me that they relate so much to my page and they’re grateful for the content I make.

@manicpixiememequeen subverts the mainstream Instagram narrative. On our personal Instagram accounts, we curate the perfect pictures with perfect captions, highlight our most impressive achievements, share our most FOMO-inducing adventures on our stories, post pictures with the right filter at the right angle at the right moment. We present very tactfully constructed versions of ourselves; these illusions are just as hyperbolic as the persona of @manicpixiememequeen. It’s just swung the other way. Instead of presenting myself as perfect, happy, and successful, I present myself as a chronically neurotic, anxious, and unhappy character. In turn, people relate to the point that they feel comfortable enough to openly discuss aspects of society or their life that aren't so perfect or picturesque, and they have the opportunity to connect with others on my page who are going through similar issues.

Ironically, social media was intended to connect us and then it brought about this pervading sense of isolation, toxic comparison, and competition. But as I’ve seen with my experiences running @manicpixiememequeen, there’s plenty of opportunity to use social media for authentic community and connection. I can actually witness it in the comment sections on my posts—people relating to each other and reaching out, asking questions about mental health management that they may not have had the opportunity or the confidence to ask if the post didn’t make them understood or safe enough to do so.

Last September, I was interviewed for NYLON Magazine about the benefits of mental illness memes and the effects of social media on mental health. The journalist asked me multiple times if I thought mental illness memes were actually detrimental, and I consistently wrote back saying no. If anything, using humor as a vehicle is helping generate some conversation and awareness. Then I made the comment that what actually is detrimental is silence and stigma surrounding mental illness and the widespread lack of access to comprehensive and affordable mental healthcare. Unsurprisingly, that comment was not included in the published interview.

Overall, social media can and does have effects on mental health. However, we have to consider the ways in which we’re using social media, interacting with others, and understanding the messages that we’re being presented with. As we grow increasingly digital, media literacy needs to be prioritized as something we teach people, especially young people during their formative years. We need to make sure that everyone understands that the images and content you see online is no accident. It did not come from a vacuum. Digital media is constructed, purposeful, and generally trying to sell you something that you don’t need. Most of us were thrown into the digital age without a roadmap for understanding or even the concept of media literacy, and I think if we were given more tools to understand at an earlier age, we’d see less of those negative effects that Baby Boomers love to read about, ironically, on websites constructing their own content and media.

Fordham University Mental Health Speak Out Speech (Transcription)

Note: This is a transcription of the speech given on September 20, 2018 at Fordham University.

Thanks for coming out tonight to Fordham’s Psych Club’s first ever Mental Health Speak Out and Open Mic Night. I’m super stoked to be here and help be apart of providing a safe space for people to talk about their mental health experiences, raise awareness, and break down stigma.

My name is Cori Amato Hartwig and I’m a writer, musician, editor, and mental health activist. Along with my impressive resume of being an unemployed recent grad—I run the weirdly viral mental illness meme account on Instagram, @manicpixiememequeen. I started the account started in March 2017 after I had the worst manic episode of my life to date, and I was overwhelmed pretty much every aspect of my life. So naturally, I started making memes and posting them for strangers on the Internet to see. Originally, it was just a place for me to shout my feelings and experiences into a void, but the account started gaining traction, and then I realized: “Holy shit. Other people get this too. It’s not just me.” And now the account has 70,000 followers or something absurd. My previously perceived sense of isolation because of my mental illness has completely dissolved in this community built around finding solace in humor and through sharing my experiences openly.

Recently, I was featured in NYLON Magazine; they wanted to interview me about mental illness memes and their potential benefits and pitfalls, and to me, I really could not name a pitfall. The interviewer asked me if memes are “normalizing the negative behaviors and mindsets that come along with having a mental illness,” and I told her that memes are not the problem. Silence is the problem. Silence is not strength and it never will be. Silence is poison. We need to normalize mental illness and the experiences that come along with it. We also need to normalize treatment for mental illness.

Of course, that part of the interview was not published—along with comments I made about the accessibility of treatment and healthcare for mental illnesses.

The day that I sent that interview off to NYLON, Lizz contacted me on Instagram asking if I would come to Fordham and be a guest speaker. Honestly, I am totally honored that she’d even extend the invitation. Then I realized that this is so much bigger than just me making memes about mental illness. It’s not about the memes at all, actually. It’s simply about having a public platform—whether that be comedy, writing, music, or art—it’s about having a public platform to safely express and share experiences and create a dialogue, because the mainstream media isn’t doing it. So it falls on us to start talking and keep talking.

We’re all here tonight despite the stigma, despite the guilt, despite the lack of dialogue, despite the pain—despite it all, we are here tonight.

Unfortunately, there are people who are not here tonight.

In January, I was in the hospital at risk for a cardiac arrest due to anorexia. Luckily I had access to professional care, even though my parents had to pay up the ass in copays and medical bills in order to save my life. Without them and without treatment, I would be dead, and I would not be here tonight.

A month after my own brush with death relating to mental illness, my uncle killed himself. It was not his first attempt, and Keith was not my first uncle lost to suicide. In June 2014, right after I graduated high school, my uncle Todd took his own life.

My family is incredibly open and we’re all clearly afflicted by mental health issues to some degree or another. We have bipolar, depression, anxiety, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, eating disorders. We’re like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in the form of a family. Growing up in this large, vocal, and mentally ill family helped me realize where the shame part of mental illness fits in. The answer is it doesn’t. I’ve excluded shame from my personal narrative; I refuse to carry it. I have enough shit to carry otherwise. But we’re subjected to silence so frequently that we start thinking that we should be hiding and that we should be quiet and that we should carry shame.

So tonight, we’re going to do the opposite of that. We are not going hide, we’re not going to be quiet, and tonight—there is no shame in this room. We’re going to leave the stigma at the door, and we’re going to have the most fun and supportive session of group therapy that you’ve ever been to.

If you feel safe and able to do so, share your story, share your experiences, share your art. Tonight this space is ours, and I want to make sure that everyone feels comfortable and no one feels pressured. So, whether you are here because you want to share or if you’re here just to listen, all I ask is that we keep this space respectful, unassuming, compassionate, and supportive. I also want to make sure that what is shared here is respected with the confidentiality that everyone deserves.