May 24, 2019

By Katrina Gay


I remember the first time I was asked to secure a celebrity for a NAMI event in 2006. It was for a press event to help encourage media coverage of a major NAMI initiative. After many weeks of attempts and rejection, we were fortunate to have Oscar and Emmy-winning actor, Patty Duke, agree to be our spokesperson. 

I asked her why it was so difficult to find someone from the entertainment industry willing to speak out. She shared that at that time, in Hollywood, talent would run the risk of getting black listed and denied parts if it were known that they had a mental health condition. The risk was considered too high for many. And when I asked her why she was able, then, to come forward, she laughed and said, “Well, dear, everyone already knows my story of bipolar disorder. And besides, I’ve been the president of the Screen Actors Guild and had a successful career. I can afford to take these risks. And, if not me, then who will be among the first to step forward?” 

This experience planted a seed in me to bring more celebrities into our movement, because they face stigma and discrimination the same as we do. But it’s celebrities, like Ms. Duke, who have the visibility to make a change for everyone. And I realized then, that if we are to meet NAMI’s mission—we are going to need their help.

Bringing People into Our Movement 

Thirteen years later, NAMI now has more than 20 influencers from the film, entertainment, sports and music industries. These brave individuals have lent their voice and shared their mental health journeys with their communities and with ours. And instead of the rejection, risk and shame that some celebrities faced in the past, many have been met with welcome and encouragement.

Through establishing these relationships, I have come to recognize that influencers offer a unique benefit to our cause. They have the capacity to raise public awareness and open NAMI and the mental health movement to new audiences. When ambassadors use their own platforms to echo our efforts—through NAMIWalks, video messaging, taping of PSAs, hosting events, speaking out—we expand our reach exponentially. People who need NAMI can learn about us because of their vast range.  

Changing Attitudes and Reducing Stigma

Through these influential narratives, we truly do have the ability to witness change happen in a unique way, one person, one fan at a time. Now, more than ever, we see the clear evidence of our society changing. More individuals in the spotlight—be it professional athletes, authors, musicians or social influencers—are opening up and disclosing their mental illnesses and experiences with seeking treatment.

We’ve learned that one of the most effective anti-stigma agents is a face-to-face experience with a person’s story of lived experience. And face-to-face is now in the palm of your hand, and accessible at any time. 

These individuals are making it in this complicated world we live in, and we see that they are more like us than we had ever imagined. As they have stepped out to reveal their own struggles and challenges, we respect them for their strength as we want to be seen for ours. They inspire us in our own struggles. We join them and participate with them and this makes us and our own experiences important, too.

As we continue to experience this rapidly changing cultural revolution, we realize that popular and lifestyle culture has the power to influence us and others. For many, this is how we see and explore our emotions, beliefs and experiences. If these personal and entertainment narratives do have the ability to influence attitudes and beliefs, then I say “bravo” and “thank you” to all who have helped encourage kindness, acceptance and hope.


Katrina Gay is national director of strategic partnerships.

Note: This blog was originally published in October 2018.

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