Stigma and Celebrities:
Mental Health in the Media
From Frank Bruno to Amy Winehouse; from schizophrenia, to depression, to addiction, most of us can’t say that we haven’t come across media coverage of celebrities’ mental health problems at some point. Many celebrities took part in World Mental Health Day (10th October), designed to raise awareness and promote mental health around the world.
But does this coverage really contribute to any greater understanding of mental health issues? Does it help to combat the stigma faced by the many individuals who face mental illness in their everyday lives?
As a teenager struggling with severe mental health problems, I looked everywhere in the press for examples of famous people who were experiencing the same things. I couldn’t seem to find any. What I found, in films, fiction and TV, was this rough, unrealistic narrative of mental health and recovery:
- Person is “Normal”
- Person becomes unwell
- Person undergoes several changes, both circumstantial and internal
- Person becomes well, and is “Recovered” (Think Girl, Interrupted) OR
- Person does not “Recover,” and dies, usually by suicide (Think Dead Poets’ Society)
More recently, it seems that there is a plethora of images and stories of celebrities struggling with and even dying from mental ill health. The narrative of mental illness seems to be changing: real-life documentaries such as Stephen Fry’s “Secret Life of the Manic Depressive” and Rachel Bruno’s “My Dad & Me” in particular have challenged notions of there being a “solution” to mental illness. Instead, these documentaries explore the difficulties of living with a mental health condition, accepting that some psychiatric disorders do not disappear and focussing instead on ways of coping and living with such a condition. This is one of the great positives of allowing more celebrities to handle their own stories of mental illness.
However, as celebrities tend to be wealthy and connected, it is also possible that we are presented with unrealistic views on treatment and recovery. Gwyneth Paltrow, for example, recommended diet, exercise and therapy following her diagnosis with post-natal depression. With the average assessment period for CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) on the NHS starting at around 13 weeks, and with each patient being allocated 12 sessions, it is unlikely that Paltrow’s methods will be available to the average person with mental health problems.
This year, coverage around Robin Williams’ suicide was by turns awful (Shep Smith of Fox News called him a “coward”) and thoughtful. Responses to his death showed the spectrum of understandings of suicide across society. Yet the coverage also allowed for other questions to be brought up: why do people commit suicide? What is depression? What, ultimately, does it mean to have a mental illness?
Of course, media coverage of mental illness has not always been sensitive or eye-opening. Coverage of, for example, Britney Spears’ struggles with mental ill health was sensationalist, often using phrases like “going crazy” or “off the rails” to describe her behaviour. This sums up the media’s general attitude towards Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, et al. Crazy exes, bad mothers, spoilt starlets… and/or victims of celebrity culture. Between these labels, little room was left in which to accept that these women might be suffering from mental health conditions, addictions, or both. Or neither!
In all, coverage of celebrity mental health issues has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it brings mental health issues in to the public eye, helping to educate people about the reality of mental illness. On the other, it can be confusing, and some types of less positive reporting can be damaging both to the celebrities concerned, and the readers influenced.
Published in [SMITHS], Goldsmiths University’s magazine.