Celebrities as destigmatizers

In my last post, I described some of the issues associated with celebrities dealing with mental illness having control of their own social media accounts. Giving the public live, minute-by-minute updates as their mental health crisis progresses — as Amanda Bynes did, for example — can’t be the best way to deal with inner demons. The public derision that stars undergoing “meltdowns” can face does nothing to move forward the dialogue around mental health issues and how they affect our lives.

Celebrities and social media aren’t necessarily a dangerous mix when it comes to mental health issues, though. A number of public figures have helped with the destigmatization and normalization of mental illness by telling the world their own stories of struggle with anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder, and a number of them have chosen to do this through their social media profiles. I posit that these platforms provide a good venue for this kind of messaging because of their authenticity, which stems from the fact that they’re controlled by the public figure themselves.

Last fall, in the wake of Kanye West’s highly-publicized psychotic episode following a stop on his St. Pablo tour in November, the Boston Globe asked whether celebrities stories might “destigmatize mental health for the masses?” “People see these celebrities as role models, which is a complicated issue, but people being ‘out’ more in general is a really helpful thing,” Harvard Square psychotherapist Melissa Kelly said in an interview for the article. “If you [feel like] you know someone who is struggling, no matter what it is, whether it’s mental illness or gender or sexuality, or all kinds of things . . . it’s hard to ‘other’ that person.” The article also mentions a Harris Poll conducted last year that found adults 18-25 had more “accepting views” of mental health care than older respondents. Perhaps, the article wondered, stars’ stories about their struggles were being heard by younger fans.

Celebrities using social platforms to make their struggles known include Carrie Fisher, Lady Gaga, Ryan Reynolds and Demi Lovato, who have all opened up about their struggles. Plenty of celebrities still use ‘traditional’ media to make their stories public, but the power of a social media post lies in the ability of thousands of people to respond and react. For example, when Fischer, who advocated for the destigmatization of mental health issues all her life, passed away, hundreds of people opened up about their own mental health issues using the hashtag #inHonorOfCarrie. In Canada, the telecom company Bell holds an annual #letstalk day about mental health, fronted by former olympian Clara Hughes, who has spoken openly about her problems with mental illness.

The benefits of this public conversation are palpable for those dealing with mental health problems that may not have someone close to them that they can relate too. Prominent, successful people talking about their problems can do a lot for normalization.


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