Does celebrity involvement help or hurt the quest to de-stigmatise mental illness?

Does celebrity involvement help or hurt the quest to de-stigmatise mental illness?

I’ve been thinking about this one for sometime, possibly since the release of Dandelions and Bad Hair Days on World Mental Health Day (October 10th 2012). The issue has resurfaced today when Bill Oddie, wild-life presenter for the BBC, commented that he felt that he was far from sure that prominent celebrities who have ‘come out’ as suffering from mental health problems actually helped to remove the stigma. While he mentioned Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax by name his comments were far from attacks on them as Wax suggested in her own rebuttal of his opinions. Reading his comments, I suspect that he included himself in the category of celebrity bi-polar sufferers whose involvement may not be helpful at all.

What do we mean by celebrity? It’s an odd term but for me it means a person who is in the public eye and has somehow captured public consciousness. They are celebrated in some way. They are lauded or loathed. Their thoughts are seen as carrying more weight than those of an ordinary person. It’s why it might have helped if a celebrity had decided to aid promoting Dandelions and Bad Hair Days. 

There’s arguments on both sides of the issue. Someone famous has the public ear (and eye) already. They have connections. They probably know people in television and in the book world. They may well have wealth that means they can fund themselves to attend events, donate to charities in significant sums. Their name is valued, believed, endorsed. They’re not just a man off the street. Celebrity gives gilding to even the most mundane of statements.

But there’s another side to it. High functioning mental health sufferers who are in the public eye can unwittingly distort the public perception of whatever illness they suffer with. This is why there are accusations of certain celebrities making particular disorders (bi-polar especially) somehow fashionable. People can also perceive that if celebrity X suffers from this disorder and still manages to turn up on stage or on set every day, there can’t be actually that much wrong. It can make them look sidelong at relatives, friends and work associates who suffer with the same disorder; when their ordinary friend finds they cannot leave their flat for three weeks, or who cannot bring themselves to shave in case they cut themselves, there is judgement. There is a sense of, “Well, if X who works in such a high stress industry can just get on with it, why can’t you?” When a celebrity has a meltdown, like when Stephen Fry absconded from his stage play Cell Mates and vanished, people are full of the sympathy they would perhaps not extend to a work colleague who took a week off just at the worst possible moment for the rest of the people working there.

As a sufferer myself, there is another issue. A celebrity patient has resources in life most of us do not have and probably never will have. We cannot check ourselves into a special clinic when we sense that a crisis is coming. The fees alone prohibit that. The mental health provision across the UK is, whatever anyone may say to the contrary, patchy. What you have access to in one part of the country may well not be open to you in another. My own experience of NHS authorities across England attests to this. It is not uniform. One area may have very different policies in practice than they do on paper.

While celebrities coping well and effectively with their illness shows us all it can be done (and even making allowances for their status and success bringing them the benefits of better treatment), a celebrity melting down brings another subliminal message. When something like that hits the newspapers, I am sure I am not the only one who feels a sense of dismay. After the initial burst of empathy comes despair. It says, “If X, with all the money, fame, resources and support, cannot maintain equilibrium, what hope is there for me?”

One of our problems is that we put too much on the shoulders of our modern gods, the famous (and the infamous) celebrities. We subconsciously assign far too much importance to their utterings, purely because they are famous. When Dandelions was put together, the foreword was written by the Chief Executive of SANE, Marjorie Wallace. She’s not famous. She’s an expert in her field though. Yet it carries less weight for most than had there been a foreword written by Stephen Fry or Ruby Wax. The book is composed of essays which are by pretty ordinary folks, by and large. They are moving and well written and powerful. Therapists and psychologists have been deeply impressed by the book, but the numbers speak for themselves: people buy books by famous people.

I am still not certain whether the involvement of celebrities has helped or hindered the vital process of removing stigma from mental distress and illness. It has perhaps made it more public, and that alone gives me hope. For keeping silent about conditions that ruin lives is akin to the mentality that locked the mad folks up in Bedlam and never let them out.

7 thoughts on “Does celebrity involvement help or hurt the quest to de-stigmatise mental illness?

  1. This is an excellent post and makes sense of the muddled thoughts I have on this issue. While I’m not without sympathy for anyone who says they have a mental illness, I do question just how severe are the conditions of some of the high functioning celebs who claim to suffer from a bi-polar disorder or deep depression. Their apparent recoveries (sometimes extremely rapid) and abilities to preform despite the disorder, have the danger of making such illnesses seem less devastating than they often are for the “ordinary” sufferer.


    • Exactly so. I had great compassion for Fry, when he admitted to a suicide attempt in a hotel room a year or two back, because to get to that sort of low is a familiar thing for me. However, the incident was only reported in retrospect, so there was no direct impact at the time on the public perception of it.


  2. Thank you for these great insights and issues worth discussing. While Agreeing with many of the points you make, I would argue that both Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax have made significant contributions to a deeper public understanding of mental health and suffering. Their influence is welcome I feel because they are genuine, engaging and can influence policy and get things done. For instance Wax’s recent book Sane New World as well as some of her pieces for the Guardian have represented the voices of many service users with regard to the need for extensive day care services and social supports. Those voices might well go unlistened to without the amplification that comes from a public figure who is prepared to speak out.
    Your comment about the patchiness of provision is spot on, the very term used by Chris Ham in his analysis of the effects of deinstitutionalisation especially during the eighties and nineties. Thank you for an excellent piece full of food for thought , and by the way I’m looking forward to acquiring and reading Dandelions in the very near future! Happy New Year 🙂


  3. Great post. I’ve met Bill Oddie, many years ago, and although portrayed in turn by the media as eccentrically outspoken, biased towards certain issues (wildlife) – he never ‘promotes’ himself as a role model for depression-management/recovery – the article doesn’t even mention his own autobiography covering his life and depression (Ruby’s response sounds as though she’s also oblivious to it), which I only ever saw him discuss once on its release, ‘One Flew Out of the Cuckoo’s Egg’ – and I think he shares your views. The problem is, non-celebrities don’t have the instant resources at their disposal, exactly as you describe so insightfully, to help them through the bad patches, and I think he’s one of the few that really feels that. It’s terrible to feel that you can fully empathise with a condition, but acknowledge that others go through it without any level of tiny privilege you might have that sets your experience apart – people go through it with no job, no partner, no family, no money – no reason to get out of bed on a good day, except for the fact that the sun is up and something great is on TV. And they go through their ‘bad days’ in conjunction with other conditions, addictions, illnesses, disadvantages and disabilities. We mostly see celebrities doing their job, at their best, prevailing over their illnesses. But in the real world, when there’s no-one to see sufferers prevail on the good days, how much notice will be taken of them on the bad days, unless they can communicate with their doctor and have a good enough understanding with them of their condition? Even the TV ads, showing people returning to work, interacting with family etc – not everyone has that. For them, a realistic one would be merely making a cup of tea, opening the post, turning on the TV, alone in their bedsit, and being able to watch something normal without being absolutely terrified that it was predicting the end of the world xxx


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