Celebrities and the Stigma Surrounding Mental Health

Tags: , ,

By Rebecca Ruddy

The stigma surrounding mental illness is a major problem and still exists despite millions of people worldwide suffering from some form of mental illness. The mainstream media can definitely play a large role in perpetuating or reducing this stigma. One question that I would like to address is: How is the media coverage of celebrities with mental illnesses perpetuating or relieving the stigma surrounding mental health issues?

An interesting article published by the Globe and Mail in 2012 began to briefly address this issue.1 In this article, the author introduced several points as to how celebrities speaking about their mental illnesses can contribute to the existing stigma. I will attempt to both add to and expand on these points. First, it is argued that celebrities “don’t represent the average person with a mental illness.”1 This is true. Celebrities typically have more money and therefore more resources at their disposal. They have the ability to seek out the best possible doctors and take time off to seek treatment. This might set up an unrealistic image of the illness and how it affects an individual’s life.

Second, the article mentions that celebrities are often not as seriously ill as people in the general public and that their illness can be improved with a simple weekend getaway. However, I find that this is a potentially harmful generalization. We cannot assume to know the seriousness of the mental health issues of these celebrities and while the article goes on to list the names of celebrities who have died from their illness, it still gives the impression that mental health issues of celebrities are not as severe as those of the general population. Thus, in some cases, the media does a disservice to the public by reporting stories about celebrities being treated for mental illness over a weekend getaway. Such reports give the impression that a short retreat is all that is needed to “fix” the mental disorder. Unfortunately, this is not the case for the majority of individuals who cope with their mental illness on a daily basis and will continue treatment for the rest of their lives.

Third, this Globe and Mail article states that celebrities are able to discuss their experience with mental illness without fear of losing their job or being treated differently by friends and family. However, I feel that this may also be a generalization. While it is likely true that they are not at risk of losing their job after speaking publicly about their mental illness, people in their private lives or in the public may still develop a prejudice against them. Hence these famous individuals are not immune to the stigmatization surrounding mental illness simply because they are celebrities. In addition, it is unfair to say that because of their status, their friends and family would be more understanding or accepting than those of the average person.

The Globe and Mail article moves on to discuss the positive aspect of celebrities speaking openly about their mental illness. It states that by celebrities discussing mental illness, it demonstrates that nobody is immune to mental illness. In addition, it may lead somebody suffering from mental illness to seek treatment. It is troubling, however, that celebrities are praised as courageous and heroes for speaking openly about their mental illness, while everyday people may have to deal with more discrimination and alienation for disclosing their mental disorder.2

One of the positive aspects of celebrities being willing to discuss their experience with mental illness is that they not only bring awareness to the disease but also become a role model to so many people who are suffering. People may find comfort in the fact that they are not alone and that somebody else is coping with a similar disease. Indeed, it takes a great deal of courage to admit to having a mental illness due to the ever-present stigma despite the fact that they are celebrities. In addition, seeing celebrities that continue to cope with their mental illness and lead a normal life can bring hope to sufferers of the disease.

Another positive aspect of celebrities who are open about their struggle with mental illness is that celebrities can use their mental illness and their fame as a platform to let people know they are not alone in their fight. Several celebrities have spoken candidly about their experience with mental illness and have gone on to be ambassadors for various causes. Demi Lovato, an American actress and singer, has spoken openly about her struggle with an eating disorder and bipolar disorder.3 She has founded the Lovato Treatment Scholarship to fund treatment for people suffering from mental illness and has spoken in Washington about health-care reform.3 Six-time Olympic medalist Canadian Clara Hughes has spoken about her battle with depression and has used her experience to help others.4 In fact, Clara Hughes is now the spokesperson for Bell Canada’s Mental Health Initiative and Let’s Talk campaign.4 In addition, American actress Glenn Close founded a non-profit organization called, “Bring Change 2 Mind” (bringchange2mind.org). This organization works to put an end to the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness. In instances like these, celebrities are definitely helping in the fight against the stigmatization of mental illness by raising awareness and funds for this cause.

Unfortunately, not all media attention regarding celebrities and mental illness is used for a good cause. The intense media coverage of celebrities who are suffering from untreated mental illness is a major problem. The media often uses people to sell magazines or increase viewership, but when it involves a celebrity suffering from mental illness it goes beyond an invasion of privacy and seems cruel. The media tends to make a spectacle of an individual’s personal battle with mental illness, depicting it as funny and using it as entertainment. This has been the case with the most recent media coverage of Amanda Bynes who has been put on a psychiatric hold. This was also true a few years ago when Britney Spears struggled with mental health issues under the spotlight of the media.

It is truly sad that the discussion about mental illness in the media usually occurs after it is too late. For example, following the death of Robin Williams in August 2014, several articles were written about depression and the need to have a bigger discussion on the topic, but why couldn’t these conversations have happened before this tragedy? Why can’t the discussion about mental health be an ongoing, evolving and meaningful conversation that can help people suffering from different mental illnesses and help end the stigma that surrounds them?

Several celebrities who have been diagnosed with certain mental health illnesses have decided to use their experience and celebrity as a platform to raise awareness and educate the public on mental health issues. It is these celebrities that help to eliminate the stigma and promote resources that are available to those currently suffering from mental illness without treatment. It is important to raise funds and awareness in order to end the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness. It is also necessary and important to start a dialogue about available resources and treatments. The media needs to stop focusing on looking at the entertainment value of celebrities suffering from mental illness and instead use it as an opportunity to start meaningful conversations about ending the stigma and empowering people with mental illnesses to seek treatment.

References:

  1. Stuart H. Do celebrity disclosures promote mental illness stigma? The Globe and Mail. 2012 Nov 30. Available from: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/do-celebrity-disclosures-promote-mental-illness-stigma/article5822024/
  2. Robertson S. How Celebrity Hurts the Mental Helath Cause. Huffington Post. 2013 Jul 19. Available from: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/sarah-robertson/mental-health-celebrity_b_3621220.html
  3. Kielburger M, Kielburger C. Celebrities and mental health: It’s time to transform pop culture stereotypes. 2014 Oct 28. Available from: http://o.canada.com/entertainment/celebrity/celebrities-and-mental-health
  4. Clara Hughes [homepage on the Internet]. c2015. Available from: http://clara-hughes.com/