While it’s important for stars such as Kanye, Demi and Mariah to take on mental health stigma, their word choice can have a huge impact on public perspectives.
Update: On Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018 Kanye said during a meeting with President Donald Trump that he was “misdiagnosed” with bipolar disorder and a neuropsychologist had diagnosed him with “sleep deprivation.”
In recent months, several celebrities have brought the discussion of bipolar disorder and mental health into the headlines. These celebrities include Demi Lovato, Mariah Carey, and Kanye West. While Lovato and Carey have disclosed their struggles with mental health as medical disorders that should be accepted and treated, West’s recent comments about his own “breakdown” have been controversial.
The difference between these celebrities’ statements about mental health is remarkable, and in many ways, it reflects the complicated attitudes American society has toward mental health issues. We are still uncomfortable talking about these conditions because of the stigma attached to it them, and as many individuals already know, disclosure to friends, family, and others can result in judgment and shame.
After all, there is a reason Carey did not disclose her experience with bipolar disorder for so many years, and it could be argued that this was because she was ashamed of it, or because she knew that disclosing a mental illness might affect the way that her fans and others viewed her. Likewise, West initially said that he was hospitalized in 2016 for “exhaustion” and did not say anything about being treated for a mental health issue. When West finally did acknowledge the “breakdown”, he called it a “breakthrough”.
At issue is whether West’s casual reference to his mental health crisis as a “breakthrough”—and his other comments about the crisis—may both minimize and romanticize the experience of being hospitalized for a mental health condition.
We would not refer to the hospitalization of an individual for a diabetic crisis or a heart attack as a “breakthrough”. But, then again, we do not talk about diabetic or cardiac issues as a “breakdown” either.
Perhaps neither word really describes the complex nature of a mental health crisis or truly reflects the fact that the disorder is a brain-based, medical illness. Of course, a further question is whether we can ever really find the right words to accurately describe a mental health crisis.
Perhaps West’s choice of words is more of a reflection of the struggle we all feel when trying to come to terms with the possibility of mental illness. As many who have bipolar disorder know, it can take many years to acknowledge, accept, and learn how to treat mental health conditions, so maybe we too need to treat West’s perspective with compassion and sympathy.
Although many people are not avid followers of Hollywood news, there is no denying that celebrities can have a powerful influence on stigma in America.
While some celebrities become important advocates for mental health awareness by telling their stories, like Lovato and Carey, others can perpetuate society’s negative perspective of bipolar disorder and mental illness. By encouraging people to “speak up” about brain-based disorders, celebrities can help the fight against stigma because the world needs to know that anyone, even people who seem like they have it all or who have accomplished much in their lives, can be challenged with facing mental illness.
I believe that disclosure—at the right time and place for each individual—is vital to our battle against stigma.
But, like Carey, there is a reason why I did not start writing publicly about mental illness health until 20 years after my diagnosis. And there is a reason why West still does not speak openly about the possibility of having a brain-based disorder.
Either way, whether we choose the right words to describe brain illnesses or not, the dialogue needs to continue. And, for all of us, we need to offer those who experience mental illness our compassion and sympathy, whether they are celebrities or not.
Carin Meyer is a lifelong Alaskan who works in public relations. Her academic writing has won numerous awards and her science writing and other articles have been published in university magazines, newspapers, and other media outlets. She has a blog at www.carinrmeyer.com. She enjoys writing essays about bipolar disorder and mental illness. Carin has drafted a book about bipolar disorder, The Smartest Girl in the World, for which she is currently seeking publication.
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