Celebs Are Speaking Out On Mental Health Issues, But Has Anything Actually Changed? Real Talk From Someone With Mental Illness
Contrary to what our world filtered through the lens of the news media often leads us to believe, mental illness affects everyone. With one in five Americans experiencing mental illness each year, it’s safe to assume that if you’re not a sufferer, someone very close to you is.
In the information age, we have gained access to myriad resources and platforms that allow us to share our stories, find support, and break down stigma. Social sharing has played a huge role in opening up the mental health conversation, and celebrities are beginning to move the needle in significant ways.
Last year alone, we saw an increasing number of celebrities speak out about their personal battles. Stars like Selena Gomez, Kristen Bell, Amanda Seyfried, Kid Cudi, and Adele all came forward to say that while the spotlight paints a certain picture of their lives, their realities are far less filtered and far less glamorous.
Since those confessions, we’ve continued to see top-tier celebs like Chrissy Teigen, Kendall Jenner, and Gillian Anderson come forward and spread awareness.
When a celebrity speaks out, it does more than land their face on the cover of a magazine or generate some online buzz. It’s a source of comfort for those who feel alone and a boost of courage for those debating whether they should seek help. It’s a conversation starter—one that until recently has been considered "taboo," or inappropriate.
You're not alone.
People with mental health disorders are often pegged as weak, dangerous or crazy, forcing them to keep their struggles private in fear of being judged.
As a sufferer of Pure O—a subtype of OCD characterized by violent thoughts that range from pedophilia to homicide to sexual preference—I understand firsthand the pain caused by mental health stigmas. I suffered in silence with OCD for more than 20 years, aggressively attempting to suppress the constant onslaught of intrusive thoughts and reconcile who I was with the awful images inside my head.
In 2015, I stumbled upon an article that saved my life. In it, the author Rose Bretécher detailed her long-running battle with thoughts similar to my own. Following this discovery and some further research, I launched my nonprofit, IntrusiveThoughts.org, as an educational hub and system of support for the OCD community.
The more people are willing to talk about their personal experiences with mental illness—especially those in the public eye who have a platform for making their voices heard—the easier it is for sufferers to know they’re not alone. Mental illness is extremely isolating. Any reminder that there are others out there facing the same demons is a beacon of hope.
So, how are celebrities starting to change the conversation?
More celebrities spoke out against mental health stigma in 2016 than we’ve seen in years prior, making the conversation about mental illness (both on- and offline) ongoing—not merely a passing fad. The majority of stars that came forward were females suffering from depression or anxiety, like Kendall Jenner, Cara Delevingne, and Hayden Panettiere. Many critics are quick to shout that a celebrity voice goes only so far and that they’re still incredibly privileged compared to most in terms of their access to the best resources and treatment.
While this may be true, it's important to remember that mental illness is an individual experience. What’s comforting to one person might not be to another. And the constant scrutiny that comes with living in the spotlight would give most of us anxiety, if we're honest.
Where the celebrity voice is lacking right now, however, is in diversity—diversity of gender, race, and disorder. Gender stigma has historically had an effect on whether or not people seek help and/or speak publicly about their experiences.
Think about masculine and feminine ideals within in our society. Women who appear "overly emotional" are frequently called needy or hysterical while men who show their sadness or anxiety are labeled weak and inferior.
We still have work to do.
Moving forward, it’s crucial that the current momentum in celebrity mental health advocacy expands to include stories from a diverse pool of celebrities. Not only do we need to see more men in the spotlight speaking out and acting as role models, specifically to young sufferers who idolize them, but we need to see a wider range of disorders discussed by a culturally diverse group.
Of the celebrities who spoke out in 2016, the majority are Caucasian. And aside from celebrities like Demi Lovato and Catherine Zeta-Jones, there’s been little conversation about illnesses like borderline personality disorder or dissociative personality disorder. Rather, media coverage focuses on public breakdowns or bizarre behavior associated with these disorders, such as we've seen from Amanda Bynes, Charlie Sheen, and Mel Gibson.
When Kanye West was hospitalized for having a mental breakdown, he became the victim of hundreds of articles picking apart his alleged "psychotic break" despite there obviously being something deeper at play. Though many celebrities offered their support to the West family, the media turned a possibly harrowing mental health crisis into a joke.
This coverage is extremely damaging. It minimizes the severity of what that person is going through, perpetuates negative stereotypes associated with mental illness, and further isolates other sufferers.
An emphasis should not be placed on mocking these celebrities but on taking their struggles seriously and reporting on them in a socially conscious manner.
Imagine if a celebrity outburst was used as an opportunity to release articles defining mental disorders, sharing testimonials from other sufferers, and offering educational and treatment resources. The impact would be huge.
The internet acts as a microphone—for better and worse.
Through social media and viral news sites, it’s easier than ever for celebrities to plant a seed and watch it grow. The widespread reach of the internet has created a huge opportunity to improve sufferers’ lives and change the current perception of mental health education and treatment.
When one celebrity speaks up, it creates a domino effect among other stars as well as everyday sufferers. However, the benefits of technology and social media are moving far beyond those of widespread communication to include platforms and programs for affecting treatment in people’s everyday lives.
I believe technology allows for real gateways to valuable professional resources and community-building—crucial forms of support that have previously been difficult to find or too expensive to pay for. The future of mental health is one in which people from all walks of life have easy access to reliable, personalized, and on-the-go treatment.
We are augmenting the "health journey" through the use of apps, chatbots, forums, text message services, and live feeds, among other digital tools. Apps like nOCD and Headspace give OCD, anxiety, and stress sufferers a coping resource tailored to their individual needs in the palm of their hands.
Wearables have proved to be significantly effective in figuring out how much physical activity people need to increase serotonin, the "happy" chemical in our bodies. And the market is advancing rapidly to include sleep, stress, depression, and other physical and emotional health-monitoring systems that collect data, and provide tangible advice for combating negative changes in our bodies.
How you can help.
We’re seeing acceptance, understanding, and education around mental illness in ways we never have before. However, stigma is alive and well and there’s a long road ahead. From here, it’s on everyone—even you—to speak out and keep the conversations going.
Sharing a link to an article on your social media page could save someone’s life. Telling a colleague or friend about an app you use to manage your stress or anxiety could inspire them to do the same. Speaking up about your own illness—or your experience dealing with and recovering from the mental health issues of someone close to you—could create an acceptance or understanding of mental illness in someone who may not have seen things clearly before.
We all need to play a part in erasing the mental health stigmas that have kept us in silence for so long.
Aaron Harvey is an NYC-based entrepreneur and founder of mental health resource IntrusiveThoughts.org. He launched Intrusive Thoughts as an educational hub to better explain how healthy choices can help sufferers and their families cope with OCD and provide accessible mental health resources to people globally.You can find Aaron and IntrusiveThoughts.org on Twitter.