Celebrity endorsements are nothing new. They started in the 1900s when such sports stars as baseball phenomenon Babe Ruth endorsed tobacco products and writers like Mark Twain appeared in images using a certain brand of fountain pens. Endorsements have evolved over the decades and so have the media over which they are projected, but the use of celebrities to highlight products and services continues. Perhaps the most notable change in recent years, however, is the move by celebrities themselves to endorse, not a product, but an action—the act of speaking out for mental health.
Extensive chronicles have long highlighted distinguished historic artists (Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Sylvia Plath, etc.,) producing renowned works of art, all while suffering from myriad mental illnesses. Art interpreters have concluded many of these artists’ famous works were the products of their mental angst and ‘tortured souls’.
In fact, Edvard Munch, artist of the painting The Scream, wrote of his own mental illness as an absolute necessity of his art. In her article ‘8 artists who suffered from mental illness’, for the website Mother Nature Network (mnn.org), writer Ali Berman quoted from Munch’s journal: “My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness,” he wrote. “Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder . . . They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art."
It should not come as a surprise to the general population, then, that our 21st century artists—singers, writers, actors—even princes—are, like their predecessors, living with mental illnesses. The surprise is that only in the last few years have celebrities been more forthcoming about their travails. And those of us in the general population—we who are not in the daily limelight of paparazzi and audiences—have them to thank.
Thanks to ‘famous’ people speaking out about their own mental health, more ‘regular’ people have been emboldened to share their unique stories of mental illness. Understandably, celebrities have a lot to fear by exposing the truth—fear of being judged; fear of losing a job; fear of losing respect from fans and others; fear of losing friends. The list is endless—and amplified by their public personae. Yet, surprising again is that the fears gripping celebrities are the same apprehensions anyone faces when struggling with the idea of exposing their mental health issues.
In 2013, after Chamique Holdsclaw, a former professional player for the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) pleaded guilty to assault and possessing a firearm, she realized she needed professional help for her long struggle with bipolar disorder and depression.
In a Chicago Tribune article, reporter Alison Bowen wrote about Holdsclaw’s concerns that her coaches would treat her differently after going public. “But,” wrote Bowen, “[she] found transparency provided relief.”
Trying to identify the exact tipping point that made it more safe for anyone to speak out is no easy chore. Was it one particular admission from one specific celebrity that made it acceptable? Neither Marilyn Monroe’s wildly famous mental health struggles in the 1960s nor Elizabeth Taylor’s interviews about her depression and medications in the '70s brought us out in great numbers to declare similar struggles.
Perhaps, in November 1995, when the late Princess Diana disclosed in a televised interview on BBC’s program Panorama that she suffered from post-partum depression, bulimia and self-injury—it was the beginning of the chipping away at the stigmas surrounding mental health. It may have been the first chip, but it still did not inspire others (famous or not) to immediately reveal their own challenges.
Nevertheless, since Diana’s admission, many current notable names-- Demi Lovato, Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber and Amanda Seyfried--have gone public with their mental health stories. Just recently, Diana’s youngest son, Prince Harry, publicized his own struggles with mental illness since his mother’s death when he was 12.
There is no real need to choose any of these examples as the one catalyst that helped the general population realize it was safe to discuss their challenges. Possibly it was simply the ubiquity of social media and its ability to transport messages around the world in record time that put these celebrities in the right place at the right time in history.
Whatever the factor or combination of them, the importance is that the dam has finally been ruptured beyond repair and the long-held stigmas surrounding mental illnesses are waning—allowing the ordinary citizen the opportunity to look for help, find it and help others—by talking about their mental health.
In a July 2017 commentary for Global News, London, ON AM980 Radio host Andrew Lawton recalled his experience of revealing his mental health struggles. “While living with depression, I was always good at putting on my game face,” he wrote. “. . . I never even considered opening up to those around me.”
Lawton said when he raises the issue now, “the response is overwhelmingly positive--though not exclusively so, clearly.”
The future looks brighter for those with mental health challenges. As Heather Stuart wrote in a report for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper: “Given the stigma that surrounds mental illnesses, such acts of disclosure are viewed as brave and heroic . . . [and] are increasingly viewed as a best practice in stigma reduction.”
Thanks to the famous and the less famous for sharing their stories. Their courage and openness allow others to know they, too, can lead successful lives with positive mental health.
Berman, A., (August 4, 2015). 8 artists who suffered from mental illness. Mother Nature Network. https://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/arts-culture/stories/8-artists-who-suffered-mental-illness
Bowen, A., (April 29, 2017). Celebrities open up about mental health struggles hoping to help others. Chicago Tribune. http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/sc-celebrities-mental-health-0502-20170425-story.html
Lawton, A., (July 14, 2017). COMMENTARY: This is why people don’t speak out about mental illness. Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/3595395/commentary-this-is-why-people-dont-speak-out-about-mental-illness/
Stuart, H., (November 30, 2012). Do celebrity disclosures promote mental illness stigma? The Globe and Mail. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/do-celebrity-disclosures-promote-mental-illness-stigma/article5822024/?arc404=true
The History of Celebrity Endorsements. (Retrieved November 8, 2017). https://celebritycred.com/history-of-endorsements/