Celebrity and the Stigma of Mental Illness


Celebrities suffering from mental illness has never been a particularly unusual occurrence; from the days of Marilyn Monroe, we have watched on with a sick kind of fascination as countless household names fall victim to mental illness. In recent years, the entertainment we’ve received from the very public breakdowns of celebrities like Britney Spears, Amanda Bynes and Charlie Sheen has become a kind of guilty pleasure. With the media constantly hounding these people, bombarding us with the latest updates on their condition, it becomes easy to forget how damaging this obsession with mentally ill people can be – not just for the people concerned, but to a much wider community of sufferers of mental illness. It has reached a point where people are selling merchandise from Charlie Sheen’s infamous rant about being ‘bi-winning, not bi-polar’, unaware that bipolar disorder can raise the chances of suicide among men from 0.3 percent to 8 percent. It is estimated that one in four people will suffer from some kind of mental illness during their lifetime, and yet sufferers are not treated with sympathy, but as a source of cheap entertainment.

Quite recently, however, some celebrities have begun to turn the tables. This June, Stephen Fry, who has openly admitted to being a sufferer of bipolar disorder, spoke in an interview about a suicide attempt last year. Fry, who is the president of Mind, a charity that offers support for sufferers of mental illness, said of his choice to speak out about his disorder ‘the whole point in my role, as I see it, is not to be shy… about the morbidity and genuine nature of the likelihood of death amongst people with certain mood disorders’. Mind, which offers information and advice about mental illness, as well as sponsoring support groups and helplines, boasts several celebrity ambassadors, all sufferers or past sufferers of mental illness, who have chosen, like Fry, to speak out about their experiences in an attempt to remove the stigma that surrounds mental illness. One of these ambassadors, The Saturdays singer Frankie Sandford, discussed her role as a Mind ambassador in an interview with Glamour magazine, saying ‘there is still so much stigma and fear around mental health and I hope… I can raise awareness and get people talking about something that affects one in four of us’.

While, in a perfect world, we wouldn’t need famous people to attach their names to mental illness, the world as it is is far from perfect. With suicide as the most common killer of under 35s, and self harm rates in Britain at the highest in Europe, the need for an open and rational national conversation about mental health is clear. Countless sufferers are unwilling to admit their problem, never mind seek medical help, due to the stigma that surrounds mental illness. The effects of this ongoing stigma have created a need for groups like Mind, who fight to alleviate this and force our society to stop treating mentally ill people as dangerous or simply ‘crazy’, but instead to view them as they are: sick people in need of help.

On a more positive note, however, we are at a point where the work of groups like Mind are no longer going unrecognised. Following Stephen Fry’s suicide revelation, he said he was greeted with an ‘outburst of sympathy and support from a kind majority’.. In a statement on his website, he reached out to fellow sufferers of mental illness: ‘I am writing this for any of you out there who are lonely too… I am luckier than many of you because I am lonely in a crowd of people who are mostly very nice to me and appear to be pleased to meet me. But I want you to know that you are not alone in your being alone’. In many ways, Fry’s experience shows the improvement of attitudes towards mental illness. However, in acknowledging that he is ‘luckier’ than many of his fellow sufferers, Fry is also acknowledging that there is a lot of work still to be done. Despite improvements, suicide rates are still inordinately high among the mentally ill, and the stigma, though challenged, is still prevalent. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done in order to combat this, and it falls to all of us to take up the discussion about mental illness and challenge our views on the subject. As it is, however, the voices of celebrity ambassadors are still vital in opening up this discussion to a wider audience, and reminding those who suffer from mental illness, as Fry has tried to do, that they are not alone.

[Susie Rae]

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