Celebrities speaking out about mental illness: help or hindrance?

This article was first published in One in Four magazine, summer 2012, as part of a feature headed ‘Can celebrities contribute to the battle against mental health stigma?’ Yes, they certainly can, I argue.

It’s hard to talk about depression and other mental illnesses, especially when you’re living with them.

You might feel ashamed – like you’ve failed in some way, like you are weak. Or you might be afraid of the reaction you’ll get if you do talk about it. Will you be called a nutter? Will people treat you differently? Will you get told to pull yourself together?

In an ideal world, anyone, anywhere, at any time, would be able to talk openly about their experience of mental illness without worrying about discrimination, ignorance or stigma. Until we arrive in that world, there is a lot of awareness to raise.

Everyone who feels able to can play a part in improving understanding and awareness of mental illness, but celebrities are able to do more than most. They have fans, admirers, connections – people who listen when they have something – or nothing, as is often the case – to say.

This might make it seem that celebrities have it easy, with this huge, ready-made audience hanging on their every word, but might the opposite be true? Any person – let’s not forget that celebrities are people, not just tabloid fodder – who is suffering from depression (for example) is likely to be low on self-esteem and feeling vulnerable. I think it takes enormous courage to bare your soul to potentially millions of people if you’re feeling like that, or can remember vividly what it feels like.

OK, so there are too many so-called celebrities getting too much coverage in too many places, and perhaps some might use their mental illness to boost their profile, which might trivialise what other people are going through. That shouldn’t detract from the great work some famous people have done to explain the reality of depression, bipolar and other illnesses.

I’m recovering from depression. One thing that has helped me in the last few months is finding so many other people, particularly through social media, who have gone through the same thing or are still going through it. It’s been very encouraging to read, watch or hear some famous people in sport, entertainment and politics talking openly and honestly about their experiences of mental illness.

By sharing this part of their lives, they’re showing it’s OK to bring it out in the open. It’s not something you have to keep quiet, as I did for a year. It’s not something to be ashamed of. It isn’t a dirty secret. Depression doesn’t discriminate. It is an illness and it can affect anybody, rich or poor, famous or unknown. If one in four people experience mental illness, that same statistic must apply to famous people. Why shouldn’t they talk about it?

I’m grateful to celebrities who talk about mental illness. If they can describe something I relate to in a way that can reach thousands or millions of people, that’s a powerful force for good. I raise my hat to Stephen Fry for his documentary about bipolar; to Andrew Flintoff for his programme on depression in sport; to Ruby Wax and Rolf Harris for talking about depression on TV chat shows; to Alastair Campbell and Bill Oddie for writing about their experiences; and to pop star Frankie Sandford for telling the press about how she had felt worthless – that if she disappeared it wouldn’t matter at all.

People look up to celebrities – idolise them, even. The growing number who are talking openly, genuinely and informatively about mental illness are using their fame to help others in the same boat. To me, that’s what being a role model is really all about.


8 Comments on “Celebrities speaking out about mental illness: help or hindrance?”

  1. expatlogue says:

    Great post Paul, and I whole-heartedly agree with you. I think most people are savvy enough to know someone genuinely sharing their difficulties from the spot-light hogging malingers; just as it’s not hard to spot the difference between those who want to regain their equilibrium and those who revel in their “craziness” and wear it as a badge of honour.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. shell lawson says:

    Hi, only just logged on to your site so I am a bit behind with my reply. I am really pleased you raised this question, as I whole heartedly agree with you. I was diagnosed with Bipolar II 16 years ago at the age of 26 and I still call it my dirty little secret. I think if more celebrities who have a MH condition followed in the footsteps of Ruby Wax, Stephen Fry etc it could raise even more awareness and maybe just maybe reduce the stigma attached that little bit quicker!!!).

    Great post, thank you 🙂

  3. i am always suspicious of “celebrities” speaking out as usually it coincides with a book release or a new film/tv show but maybe that is just the cynic in me.

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