“Well, guess I’ll die.”
If you have at all interacted with me personally this past year, you’ll know that this is one of my favorite refrains. Whether I’m having a bad day, or not in the best headspace, or even just faced with a minor inconvenience, the words leap to my lips.
My sense of humor might be morbid, but it is not an anomaly. On Penn’s campus and for our generation more generally, our taste in jokes is decidedly bleak. The end of the world, suicide, mental health: all of these things are common fodder for memes, tweets, and casual conversations with friends. And honestly, who can blame us? Navigating life in the 21st century often feels like a madcap rat race, an absurdist, Kafkaesque exercise in futility and meaninglessness. And yet, however understandable it may be for us to joke about such grim topics, joking about death, suicide, and mental health more generally is a coping mechanism that ultimately does us more harm than good. Penn may be a high pressure environment, but using morbid jokes to vent only compounds our campus’ mental health crisis.
In particular, by casually indulging in dark humor we run the risk of normalizing issues of mental health in the worst way possible. By joking about dying or depression on a regular basis, it can make it much more difficult for a friend to know if you’re just kidding around and being dramatic or are genuinely giving them a cry for help. And by constantly making light of suicide and depression, when symptoms manifest it could be treated with far less seriousness than it ought to be.
However innocent such talk might be, the fact of the matter is that joking about mental illness ultimately minimizes it and the people that it affects. It’s one thing to joke about having depression or wanting to die, and it’s an entirely other thing to genuinely struggle to get up each morning or to grapple with thoughts of suicide. It’s difficult to open up to people about mental health as it is. But by perpetually joking about it, it makes it that much more difficult for people who are genuinely struggling to open up and be taken seriously. Something else to bear in mind: You don’t know everyone’s histories. What to you is a lighthearted joke or an offhand comment could serve as a trigger for someone else’s traumatic experience. Especially at Penn, where the “work hard, play hard” mentality pushes nearly everyone to their breaking point, it pays to be particularly cautious.
And finally, although this is perhaps obvious, dwelling constantly in the realm of dark humor is not great for your well-being or your outlook on life. Yes, class is stressful. Yes, this campus’s culture is toxic. Yes, the world sucks. But by being perpetually pessimistic and forever locked in the mindset of “it’s the grind and then the grave,” you risk suffocating any small joy that could make your day or life just that much more livable. Joking about your abysmal mental health might temporarily make you feel better about yourself, but it is no substitute for genuinely taking care of yourself and certainly no substitute for seeking out professional help.
Dark, nihilistic humor is a symptom, not a cause, of this campus’ mental health epidemic. And while this sort of humor is supposed to act as a sort of coping mechanism, it ultimately inflames, not soothes, the mental health issues that plague this campus. I am by no means proposing a ban on dark humor in all its forms, or arguing that anyone who’s ever quipped about death is a bad person. But we owe it to each other and to ourselves to be just a bit more thoughtful, and just a bit more measured in the way that we use black comedy in our everyday lives.
The HELP Line: 215-898-HELP
Counseling and Psychological Services: 215-898-7021 (active 24/7)
Student Health Service: 215-746-3535
Office of the Vice Provost for University Life: 215-898-6081
University Chaplain’s Office: 215-898-8456
- 215-573-2727 (every day from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.)
- 215-515-7332 (texting service available 24/7)
JAMES MORRISON is a College sophomore from Pipersville, Pa. studying English. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.