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.