Ahead of Channel 4′s mental health season – 4GoesMad – here are my thoughts on the use of celebrities in mental health campaigning and why I think it’s not always helpful
Years ago the revelation that a celebrity has a mental health difficulty would have signified the end of a career; these days ‘coming out’ has become almost commonplace and can even revitalise a flagging celebrity’s career. People in the public eye can do a lot of good by speaking out about mental health, but does knowing that Frankie from pop band The Saturdays has the same condition as you really appease the stigma? Are these celebrities helping or actually hindering those of us with mental health difficulties?
As a mental health blogger and fan of Twitter I regularly come across tweets and articles praising celebrities for their honesty in speaking publicly about their experience of having a mental health difficulty. The narratives of individual celebrity’s mental health stories can be strikingly similar and echoes treatment those of us without the necessary income or status have never even heard of, never mind being able to access. In some cases the more painful aspects of being unwell and having to go into hospital are glossed over in favour of a ‘happy ending’ in which the celebrity recovers and can go back to their old life, maybe having garnered more publicity and fans along the way. I would never dismiss a person’s experience of being unwell with a mental health difficulty but I am dubious as to whether these stories – celebrated by mental health charities – are helping educate the public about mental health and improving the lives of us living with a mental health difficulty.
The danger lies in people with no prior understanding of mental health believing recovery is simple and easy, that all it takes is two weeks in hospital and you’re magically cured. As well as having a mental health difficulty myself I volunteer within mental health and am painfully aware of how complex and subjective recovery is; the road to it can be bumpy at best, punctuated by relapses, repeated hospital admissions and referrals with anxiety inducing waiting lists, sometimes of a year or more long. When you’ve struggled to manage your mental health for years it can be frustrating to read of how – seemingly – easy it was for celebrities. You may ask yourself, why am I not recovered yet? The reality of living with a mental health difficulty is rarely glamorous and may not make for pleasant reading but it has to be told if we’re ever going to challenge stigma and reduce discrimination.
The mental health charity Mind regularly makes use of its celebrity ambassadors – last year Stephen Fry was made president of Mind – to help raise awareness of mental health and the work they do. While I can understand the rationale behind recruiting celebrities into this role – they have influence – I feel it draws attention away from the stories we need to be dedicating attention to; how the welfare reforms are going to leave vulnerable people penniless and suicidal, can Stephen Fry really represent these people or do we need to promote the writers, bloggers and campaigners who have passionately been speaking out for years. There is also a case to be made about whether a celebrity can speak out honestly about certain issues, they may not want to jeopardise their career prospects.
I believe celebrities can have a role in helping raise awareness around mental health but there has to be proportionality; let’s promote the people already speaking out and encourage everyone with experience of mental health difficulties – whether they have recovered or not – to contribute to the discussion and educate the public about the true reality of living with a mental health difficulty, the good, the bad and the ugly.
Published in the Summer 2012 issue of One in Four magazine