Are Celebrity Mental Illness Stories Helpful Or Hurtful?
Jenifer Lewis. Kid Cudi. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Darryl McDaniels of “Run-DMC”. Jesse Jackson, Jr. All of these well-known Black celebrities have gone public with stories about their mental illnesses, which have made an impact on public discussions about mental health. Take, for example, the hashtag and movement #YouGoodMan, a campaign of support and information that about came directly as a result of Kid Cudi’s Facebook post about his struggles with depression. Still, from an all encompassing perspective, just how do celebrity mental illness admissions impact people on an individual level?
One of the biggest issues plaguing people with mental illness is the stigma around various disorders. Many people of all races believe negative things about mental illness: that it’s fatal; that only weak people succumb to it; that you can’t live a healthy life or hold down a job if you have a mental illness. And it’s that stigma that often prevents African Americans from seeking mental health treatment when necessary. Seemingly, more awareness and greater acceptance can reduce stigma, and celebrity mental illness admissions should go a long way to combating both problems.
Candice Peters* of Cleveland, OH, who has dealt with depression and been treated by various medications for a number of years, agreed the resulting effect can be positive. Peters said such an admission by a famous person “humanizes and destigmatizes mental health issues,” which gets to the heart of mental health issues in the Black community. “Speaking up and being transparent about their struggles at any level– especially in regard to mental illness– can help the public understand that if [celebrities] can manage and overcome their issues, anyone can.”
Reducing stigma and getting more African Americans into treatment are of paramount importance to the professional community as well. Tanya Ladipo, LCSW, founder of The Ladipo Group in Philadelphia, PA, also sees the good in celebrity mental illness “coming out” stories. Ladipo runs an all-Black psychotherapy and wellness practice, and said that our connections to famous people help us model them, even with something as poorly understood as mental health treatment.
“When famous people — people that we feel like we know, people who we admire, people who we like — [get care for mental health and mental illness] it makes us say, ‘Oh, I’ve had these troubles’ and reinforces the notion that mental illness treatment is “nothing to be ashamed of.”
But some mental health consumers feel that celebrity mental illness revelations can be damaging to the individual. Sammy Redd, an African-American educator from western Virginia, believes that our celebrity-obsessed culture can make us over-identify with famous people. Redd, who has managed his bipolar disorder for over 20 years, cautions people against giving stars too much credit for “beating” mental illness. “Celebrities tend to be perceived as ‘experts’…It’s too easy for a celebrity to communicate ‘I overcame mental illness, and you can too!’”
Personally, I appreciate when famous people come out mental health struggles. When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I thought of Lewis and Catherine Zeta-Jones. They were women with my disease who had good careers and seemed to have flourishing personal lives. Just knowing that either a good job or a happy personal life were possible with bipolar was a comfort to me during my early days of treatment.
Ladipo’s clinical experience jibes with my experiences early in my diagnosis. While she hasn’t witnessed a direct linkage between someone beginning therapy as a result of celebrity story, she noted that any news of this sort has an effect on all of us: “[P]eople talk about what they see in the media. [It] validates people who are getting help.” Ladipo also noted that we process information on a subconscious level, so while nobody is walking into treatment just because Kid Cudi is as well, barriers to treatment may be lowered because someone has seen a celebrity mental illness story in the past.
Stigma is very difficult to reduce, considering all of the competing images of mental illness that are portrayed in our media. On one hand, we have stars speaking about their success at battling mental health demons. On the other, TV shows and movies still show images of mental asylums with patients who are beyond help and demonized for their illness. The best way to reduce the stigma around mental illness is for everyday people to represent the normalcy of diagnosis and treatment.