How celebrities have cast a spotlight on mental health disorders

As Pete Davidson’s worrying posts last weekend highlighted, celebrities struggle with mental health issues, too – and it is not our place to judge or criticise

Pete Davidson, Kanye West, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. AP Photo
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The celeb world is brutal. Sure, there's glitz and glam, plenty of money and opportunities, but fame is obviously hard. Particularly on those who are prone to suffering from mental health issues.

The problem is, when a celebrity is struggling with a bout of depression – or any other mental health-­related illness – it's done very publicly. They're still front and centre in the tabloids, the talk of social media, and expected to look beautiful and carry on.

Pete Davidson and Kanye West

Last weekend, American comedian and actor Pete Davidson put up a disturbing now-deleted post on his Instagram account, claiming: “I don’t want to be on this earth anymore … I’m doing my best to stay here for you but I actually don’t know how much longer I can last. All I’ve ever tried to do was help people. Just remember I told you so.”

The 25-year-old, who split from ex-fiancee Ariana Grande earlier this year, has been ­diagnosed with borderline ­personality disorder. As it turns out, when officers from the New York City Police ­Department checked in on him, he was OK, but Davidson has since deleted his social media accounts.

Meanwhile, Kanye West also took to social media on the weekend and announced that he's been off his medication for the past six months. The singer confirmed that he'd been diagnosed with bipolar disorder this summer. He wrote: "I'm loving the new music I've been working on. Six months off meds I can feel me again."

Battle of the trolls

While we certainly need more candid talk around mental health issues – among celebrities and non-famous folk alike – what we don't need is people mocking others for their openness. Like American actor Michael Rapaport (Atypical) did. He posted a video on Twitter doing a scornful impression of Davidson, West and Ariana Grande. Blogger and TV personality Perez Hilton wasn't impressed. "Klout-­chasing gone horribly wrong!!" he wrote on Twitter.

While Rapaport then apologised, saying he “had no clue” of the full details of Davidson’s troubling Instagram post”, it was too late. That’s the thing with the internet – once it’s posted, it’s there, and it has the potential to be seen, shared, go viral, and hurt someone’s feelings. And if someone is already struggling with their mental health, it has the potential to do some serious harm.

"I think the anonymity of social media can often bring out the worst in people," says Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist and managing director of Dubai mental health clinic, LightHouse Arabia. "Most people in the public eye experience judgment, belittling and criticism from people all around the world. Whereas in the past, people in mass media had a place and a space to voice an opinion – and the impact could be felt in the evening news or the morning paper – with the ­advent of social media, anyone can say something and have it be heard by the celebrities

Celebrity suicides

For anyone, opening up to close friends and family about their inner struggles is already a scary prospect. But imagine the whole world is watching. And commenting. And judging. Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, Ryan Reynolds, Adele, Beyoncé, Dwayne Johnson, Britney Spears, Ellen Degeneres – the list of celebrities who have bravely spoken out about their diagnoses goes on and on. TV chef Anthony Bourdain, fashion designer Kate Spade and American-Canadian actress Margot Kidder are just three of the most high-profile cases of celebrity suicide in 2018. Last year saw musicians – and friendsChris Cornell of Soundgarden and Chester Bennington of Linkin Park end their own lives.

Public displays of mental health struggles among the super-rich and famous is nothing new, either. Lest we forget king of comedy Robin Williams, 27-year-old grunge super-star Kurt Cobain, and Hollywood darling Marilyn Monroe – we've lost to suicide over the years.

Raising mental health awareness through stardom

One in four people in the world will be affected by ­mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives, the World Health ­Organisation reports. “Around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.” The report goes on to say that nearly two-thirds of people with a known disorder never seek help, whether because of stigma, discrimination or neglect.

The fact that more and more celebrities are speaking out is of course incredibly positive. The more they do, the more they shift the cultural conversation around mental illness, and smash the stigmas.

"I think social media and celebrities have a great power to raise awareness of ­mental health problems with great speed and efficiency," Afridi adds. "People feel more empowered and encouraged when they hear famous people coming forward to talk about their humanness and their difficulties."

Saliha Afridi is a licensed clinical psychologist and the managing director of The LightHouse Arabia. Razan Alzayani / The National
Saliha Afridi is a licensed clinical psychologist and the managing director of The LightHouse Arabia. Razan Alzayani / The National

Dealing with the aftermath

Yet, it can be trying for someone in the public eye, already struggling with a mental health issue, to deal with the fallout from their admissions. Airing your dirty laundry so publicly is no easy feat. “When a person gets thousands of negative and judgemental messages a day on all the different media mediums, it can take a toll on the person. They are constantly under scrutiny and every move, every outfit, every word is being watched and criticised or judged. This, along with other stressors that the celebrities face, can make them more vulnerable or distressed and exacerbate their mental health difficulties.

“There is also some dehumanising of celebrities – and it is hard to imagine that they are real people with real problems. This can often result in the general public thinking they do not deserve compassion or are not as affected by the ­negative comments as the average person.

A very human problem

Of course, that's not to say celebrities are any more prone to suffering from mental health issues than the rest of us, Afridi adds. "While their stressors and circumstances are difficult, mental health difficulties are a result of biological, psychological and social reasons, so it can happen to anyone who is genetically prone to mental health disorders, has difficult social circumstances, and not as psychologically able to cope with the distress."

Essentially, we all need to ­remember that life is ­difficult at times for all of us, no ­matter how well-known you may be. "I think we should treat everyone – celebrity or not – as we would like to be treated," advises Afridi. "­Compassion and empathy are lacking in many people these days. We hide behind our screens and say hurtful things to people we have never met and don't see or realise the impact our ­comments are having on them. There are many things we say online that we would never say to a person to their face.

“Before people post on social media and make harsh or critical comments, think about whether or not you would say this to their face. Imagine yourself in their shoes, picture the person having a bad day, or struggling with difficult emotions and then coming across your posted comment.

“It might just make you change your mind.”


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