Mental health stigma is fading, with celebrities playing a role

(Maria Jesus Contreras for The Washington Post)

Every year, Kellie Deys assigns her students at Nichols College in Massachusetts to write about a music video. The English teacher prompts them with questions like What does this video mean to you? What does this video say about you? Can you relate to the video? About a decade after taking this job, Deys noticed that a certain video started popping up again and again.

The song title is not a word or phrase, but a phone number. It’s from rapper Logic, and the title was the National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

Deys was impressed not only by the choice, but also by the reasons for the choice: the students spoke openly about their mental health and a music video gave them the license to do so.

They found this video impactful, Deys said in an interview. She was opening that discussion. You see a number of different people in the video; crosses racial, ethnic, gender lines.

The Logic effect spread far beyond the Nichols College campus. According to a study by the BMJ, the British medical journal, the rap song, released in 2017, was related to a surge in calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. A reduction in suicides, the report concluded, was seen in periods with the most social media talk about the song. Logic had most likely saved lives.

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As the demand for mental health help has increased, celebrities ranging from musicians to TV stars to athletes have used their platforms and public profiles to discuss their mental health challenges. It reflects both the broader societal shift that has destigmatized the discussion of emotional and mental health, as well as a trend that has impacted encouraging people to speak up or address issues in their lives.

How these revelations are having an impact is helping people learn what to do if they have health problems, said Petra Gronholm, a researcher at Kings College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience. If they see celebrities doing it, they might be doing it themselves.

While it’s unclear whether the culture shift around mental and emotional health preceded the rise in celebrities speaking out, or vice versa, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation, Gronholm said, discussions about it in popular culture can help encourage openness and raise awareness of the issues.

There are multiple platforms, facilitating disclosure, which changes what’s normal, said Gronholm, co-author of a 2022 study on the impact of celebrity disclosures on mental health stigma.

In 2017, Gracie Gold, an American champion figure skater, sought help for anxiety, depression and an eating disorder. She went to Arizona for treatment away from the skating clubs she knew, so when she let the world know about her struggles, her main outlet for her feedback was online.

Before, it was mostly on social media, Gold said in an interview. I think that was also when I realized what I was talking about was a bigger deal than I realized. People seemed blown away by the concept.

Gold said she was especially surprised by how much her message resonated within the skating community.

I never realized how shocking or impactful it would be for the sport, Gold said. People congratulated me on my courage and honesty. At first it was strange. It had never occurred to me that there was any other option than honesty.

Gold said she spoke up because for her it was the right path and the only one.

It’s just time to stop hiding because society has told us it’s shameful, he said.

At Nichols College, Deys watched several students stand in front of their peers and give talks about their own crises, including self-harm and time spent in a hospital setting. Both the opening and response felt as cathartic as a social media post and reaction comes to life.

I don’t think there was anywhere near that kind of disclosure 10 years ago, Deys said. The response from the students is also significant.

Experts cite two factors that have accelerated this trend, the first being the pandemic. The World Health Organization has estimated a 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide during the first year of the crisis. It was a global mental health cataclysm and it affected everyone. It has also made telehealth a more acceptable option.

This has really been one of the catalysts for the search for mental health services, said Paula Langford, a clinical social worker and director of the Healing Institute of Baltimore. You don’t have to enter a building to get help. You also have the factor I don’t want people to see I’m crazy. I think that was really when we started to see acceptance increase.

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The other factor is the widespread use of social media. Part of the power of the platform is the virtual applause of likes and positive comments. Sure, there’s a lot of hate and vitriol and it causes one’s own emotional trauma, but even the chorus of backlash against that venom can encourage some to feel better about their mental health situation.

Celebrities’ use of social media can also have an impact through a phenomenon known as horizontal identification. As a 2022 study in Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences explains, people have traditionally viewed celebrities or public figures they admire as superior to them, which is called vertical identification. But when people are able to identify more strongly with celebrities, seeing similar characteristics to themselves such as age, gender, background, or in this case similar struggles or feelings related to mental health, they experience a horizontal identification.

So when stars like Demi Lovato and Kelly Clarkson talk about their emotional well-being, as they did during a 2020 interview on Clarkson’s talk show, it can help inspire others to do the same.

I’ve had a few people tell me about suicide and mention Demi Lovato, said Anna Bell, a Washington-based social worker. I’ve never heard them say that’s why they come to therapy, but it normalizes it. People can survive [suicidal thoughts] and still be successful and popular in this world.

Horizontal identification can also expand messaging about mental well-being to parts of the population it doesn’t always reach consistently. Some demographics face more stigma than others. For example: black men.

They’re looked at very differently than other men, Bell says. It’s easy in this world to target them for things that go wrong. They are always looked at differently. They have this extra layer that they have to go through. Play on their minds and emotions. It’s never safe to be human sometimes.

Popular radio host Charlamagne tha God is an example of a celebrity reaching out to the black community. The Pivot podcast, hosted by former NFL players Ryan Clark, Channing Crowder and Fred Taylor, has received praise for the hosts’ willingness to address topics like mental health and vulnerability. And actor Taraji P. Henson’s foundation, the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, has seen a 200 percent increase in black men seeking his help in just three years.

We’ve also seen more young people, said Tracie Jade, executive director of the Henson foundation, which has provided 10,000 free hours of mental well-being help in just three years. I would say there is empowerment and seeking help yourself. It’s not just waiting for someone to come and help.

The National Institutes of Health reports that approximately 1 in 4 American adults live with a mental illness. This statistic, while certainly alarming, may reflect a willingness to speak up instead of hiding in shame. There is perhaps less fear of admission from both celebrities than the rest of us.

It’s a generation of people who are more accepting of everything and everyone and need to move forward, says Gold. The archaic rules no longer serve us.

But there is a long way from being encouraged to being healed. Celebrities can offer insight and support, but they can’t do the hard work for millions in need.

Just because attitudes have changed, Gronholm said, doesn’t mean lived outcomes have changed.

If you or someone you know needs help, call Lifeline for suicide and crisis to 988. You can also contact a crisis counselor by texting Crisis text line to 741741.

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