Why Don’t We Care About Celebrities with Mental Health Issues?

We all giggled a little when Britney Spears suddenly shaved her head. People thought, she’s crazy! Now days this type of behavior will spread faster than a virus. And as a physician, I know how fast a virus works! So when Kanye West recently suffered a “psychiatric emergency,” it’s not surprising there was immediate backlash (1). The media said West experienced a mental breakdown. Social media christened the hashtag #KanyeIsOverParty (2).

Let’s consider Kanye West’s behavior and why the media’s reaction is unhealthy. No matter how you feel about a certain celebrity, the discussion surrounding mental health problems needs to change. A person is struggling. And despite it seeming like they have the world in their hands, they are on the verge of crumbling. Maybe the celebrity doesn’t know what’s wrong with him/her or they just feel helpless.

Kanye’s Struggle

Preceding hospitalization, Kanye West’s behavior was described as increasingly unpredictable (3). But West’s so-called breakdown was actually attributed to sleep deprivation and severe dehydration (1). Undoubtedly the toll of touring! Imagine the rigors of performing every single night. Making appearances at all those after parties. And the constant traveling! Ok, so maybe you’re thinking, that sounds pretty good. But this routine would wear you down. On the other hand, it could bring out manic behavior.

While we may expect a possible post-VMA meltdown from Kanye West, this year he did not disappoint. His hospitalization followed an infamous rant made on a tour stop in Sacramento (2). This evoked a social media storm of negative reactions. But it is worth mentioning that West likely has underlying mental health issues. So when West was taken to the hospital, no one really knew what was wrong with him. Why were so we quick to condemn his mental health?

It’s easy to associate negative behaviors with mental illness. But this oversimplifies a complex neural process. As a doctor, I think it’s important to step back and understand the whole story. West’s breakdown and hospitalization was the result of him being totally vulnerable. Right now Kanye deserves some time to be left alone, to rest, and get help.

Celeb Status and Stigmas

It’s easy to forget that celebrities are real people. Flippantly attributing negative behavior to “being crazy” undermines how hard it is to live with a mental illness. Whether you are in the public eye or enjoy your privacy, dealing with mental disorders (like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or anorexia) can leave you feeling hopeless.

Not all celebrities with mental issues are equal. Some of these celeb meltdowns provoke laughter and jokes (i.e. Charlie Sheen) made at their expense. You think it’s ok to laugh at their crazy behavior because they acted like a jerk or they “had it coming.” Yet there are other celebrities with whom we empathize. There are celebrities that wish to keep their mental health private. And there are those that choose to raise awareness surrounding their diagnosis (4).

Changing the Stigma

The stigmas around mental health are so great that mental illnesses are only acknowledged about half the time, and only half of these cases seek treatment (5). If people spout behaviors we don’t like or agree with (like in the case of Kanye West), and if the circumstances are heightened (like an exhaustive touring schedule), real underlying mental illness may be at play. Further fogging our visions of celebrity mental health is the access these celebs have to drugs and alcohol. Rather than view it as just another crazy celeb out partying, remember this could point to a tendency to self-medicate. A call for help.

So what can we do to change the conversation? How about starting with having a little empathy? Become aware that mental illnesses are serious medical conditions. They require treatment and can be managed just like other physical problems. Honor people’s desire to keep their mental health private. Avoid speculation. And if someone decides to speak about their mental health, don’t judge them for it. In fact, commend them for taking control and becoming their own Health Hero!

Partha’s Rx

  1. Mental health disorders can affect anyone, even the celebrities we hold in high regard.
  2. Mental illnesses may contribute to negative behavior. But instead of condemning this behavior, we should learn to understand it. Empathy is more easily extended to sympathetic figures. But the larger-than-life celebrities with mental health issues are suffering too.
  3. Mental disorders are serious medical conditions. Because of associated stigmas, they are only acknowledged about half the time.
  4. Mental health is a private struggle and does not deserve our negative judgment.

Links

  1. https://www.refinery29.com/2016/11/130880/mental-health-shaming-celebrities-kanye-west-breakdown
  2. https://www.refinery29.com/2016/11/130542/kanye-west-beyonce-rant
  3. https://www.highsnobiety.com/2016/11/29/celebrities-mental-health-matters/
  4. https://health.howstuffworks.com/mental-health/mental-disorders/15-celebrities-with-mental-health-disorders.htm
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181625/