May 15, 2019

By Izzy Gonçalves

We have seen the story many times: a celebrity starts behaving erratically and it’s plastered across headlines. Their actions become increasingly self-destructive. People might question if it’s an issue with drugs or alcohol. Their friends and family may express concern. The downward spiral continues. Then, the announcement—they’ve gone to rehab or a hospital to get help. In some cases, we learn the reason is bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety or another mental illness.
If that celebrity shares their diagnosis, it can be illuminating to people who follow them. In particular, people with mental illness might welcome a high-profile person “coming out” about their condition. They might feel less alone or even feel a sense of pride from what they have in common with a celebrity. They might feel better about themselves. Society might also revisit its perceptions and expectations of those with mental illness. The “celebrity endorsement” might help reduce stigma and shift public attitudes around mental illness.
But is the example set by that celebrity helpful? Being famous is often about creating and managing a public image. So, it’s fair to question the authenticity and motives of their “coming out.” In fact, some celebrities romanticize aspects of mental illness, such as the connection between certain conditions and creativity. For example, Kanye West has openly disclosed that he has bipolar disorder. He has suggested that it enhances his creativity and artistry, and even suggests that it is a “superpower” in his lyrics. 

The Good and the Bad

It is clear that mental illness “celebrity endorsements” are not all the same. While the mental health community would hope that celebrities only raise awareness in a positive way, it is possible that their behaviors perpetuate stigma. The celebrity’s message may not be the most informed or helpful. 
Sometimes, a celebrity discusses their refusal or reluctance to take medication. They make it sound like they don’t need medication or that it stifles their creativity. This can be a particularly risky message. Medication is critical for so many, particularly those with severe mental illness. Celebrities may be accomplished and admired, but they are not doctors. 
However, some celebrities speak very frankly about their diagnosis and struggles. They focus more on the challenges they encounter. One example is Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson. A couple of years ago, he disclosed that he has borderline personality disorder. His ups and downs have been very much on public display, particularly following his split from fiancée Ariana Grande last year. Pete has openly addressed his issues on and off the show. His story is a very relatable account of a young adult recently diagnosed and coping with mental illness, free of romanticism. 
I believe that these celebrity examples can be very positive if they are authentic, not just a tool to raise celebrity status. If the celebrity is authentic in their ownership of mental illness, they should feel a sense of responsibility as a representative of this community. 
For me, both the examples of Kanye West and Pete Davidson can be constructive but for different reasons. We can also pick and choose the parts of their message and story that are most relevant and sensible to us. For example, Kanye West’s lyrics might offer valuable inspiration and empowerment to those struggling with mental illness.“I’m okay thinking of my mental illness as a superpower, but I also know that I need my medication to keep these powers in check.”While Pete Davidson’s down-to-earth attitude might help create understanding about mental illness. When celebrities share their meltdowns and challenges, their followers can relate and feel less alone. There is power in this empathy, a sense of shared experience and community.
If a celebrity is being honest about their mental health issues, their example is likely to be helpful. More of these “endorsements” can certainly help reduce stigma. This can help people with mental health issues avoid isolation and seek out treatment and support. It can help them find hope and inspiration to persist on their journey of recovery. These very visible examples of celebrities living with a mental illness also show that we are not alone. Mental illness does not discriminate. The rich and famous have it too. 

Izzy Gonçalves is a finance professional, "part time celebrity watcher" and the primary caregiver of his wife who is living with bipolar disorder. Together they built ForLikeMinds, the first online peer-based support community dedicated to people living with or supporting someone with mental illness illness.

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