Celebrities and Mental Health: Stars Who Speak Out Are Helping to End the Stigma

Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato and Amanda Seyfried have all spoken publicly about personally seeking treatment for different types of mental illness

By Rebecca Macatee Dec 13, 2016 4:00 PMTags
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During Lady Gaga's recent visit to the Ali Forney Center, a shelter for homeless LGBT youth in Harlem, the singer spoke for the first time about her struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Gaga, who revealed in 2014 that she was raped at age 19, told a group of kids that while she doesn't "have the same kind of issues that you have," she "[has] a mental illness and I struggle with that every day." 

In sharing what she described as "one of my deepest secrets," Gaga hoped to empower others who'd experienced similar trauma. By going public with her personal mental health struggle, she used her fame for good—and she's certainly not the first celebrity to do so.

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Selena Gomez, who suffered from depression and anxiety as side effects of lupus, gave an inspiring speech at the 2016 American Music Awards telling fans they "do not have to stay broken," and that she, too, sought help when she felt "broken inside." Demi Lovato has spoken at length about being bipolar and battling drug and alcohol addiction in the past. Amanda Seyfried told Allure that while some of her OCD symptoms have diminished over time, she doesn't see the point in ever getting off of her doctor-prescribed antidepressant.

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Clearly, there's no shortage of celebrities speaking out about mental illness—and as several psychologists, psychiatrists and behavioral experts confirmed to E! News, this is a good thing for all of us. 

"I think it's unbelievably empowering," says Dr. Harris Stratyner, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. "When it comes to things like psychiatric illness and substance abuse, there's a stigma that's attached...When a celebrity who is respected comes out and reveals it, it's very empowering—particularly to young men and women—but to people of all ages."

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Dr. Drew Pinsky, board-certified internist and self-described "addiction-ologist," tells E! News that when a celebrity goes public with his or her own mental health issue, "...it's an opportunity to learn about it. It's an opportunity to reduce stigma, reduce fear, reduce shame of an ordinary person—not a celebrity—managing the same problem."

Oftentimes a celebrity's diagnosis starts a conversation that otherwise might not have taken place. According to Bob Carolla, a spokesman for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a public figure speaking out "may embolden others to talk about their mental health conditions in their communities or encourage people to seek help."

It's imperative to seek qualified, professional treatment for mental illness, just as it would be for any other type of medical ailment. Pinsky says he looks at mental illness "as a brain disease, the way I look at heart disease and pancreas disease and skin disease."

Brain disorders and mental illness "are routine medical illnesses of a certain organ," says Pinsky, "and [they] shouldn't be talked about or looked upon any differently than any other medical problem."

Dr. Anna Wachtel, a psychiatrist on Manhattan's Upper East Side and the founder of PsychiatryForHealth.com, agrees that there's "a tremendous benefit" to celebrities going public with their own mental health diagnoses. But what we all need to understand, she says, is that mental illness "is definitely not a state of mind—it's something that needs to be addressed medically and treated."

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"It's just like suffering from diabetes," says Wachtel. "It's just like suffering from high blood pressure, or high cholesterol. What's the difference? There's absolutely zero—zero difference. That's how we should view it and get help."

Dr. Pinsky would like to "commend and applaud celebrities that speak up" about their own experience getting treatment for mental illness. "This is how we get this conversation going—it's by people, like celebrities, stepping up and saying, 'Hey, I'm just like you, I'm a human and these are common human medical problems.'"

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Although Pinsky by and large thinks celebrities discussing mental illness is a good thing, he says he worries about "misinformation" being spread when people "become too enthusiastic about one form of treatment or one interpretation of their condition."

"That's why doctors don't become crusaders of one particular discipline or another, because we understand science is an ever-changing discipline that is built on theory and not fact," he says. "People who are not scientifically trained really aren't in a position to begin advocating one form of treatment or one form of thought unless they've really had clinical training."

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Dr. Julie Holland, a New York psychiatrist and author of Moody Bitches: The Truth About the Drugs You're Taking, The Sleep You're Missing, The Sex You're Not Having, and What's Really Making You Crazy, has a similar worry. She tells E! News that while "normalizing [mental illness] is great," there is a downside: "You run the risk of, if a celebrity is misdiagnosed or misinformed, that they are not going to be educating people—they're going to be miseducating people."

"I think it's hard for the average person to do a good job teaching or explaining what an illness is or how it is best treated," she adds, "so that's one of my concerns."

It's for this reason that Carolla, a spokesman for NAMI, suggests any celebrity wanting to make a positive impact, "[h]ave a mental health professional available to explain medical issues" when sharing his or her personal experience. 

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"Carefully plan how, where and when to disclose," adds Carolla. "Be straightforward. Be yourself...Work with mental health leaders and organizations in mutually supportive ways."

Fortunately, quality mental health care is becoming increasingly accessible for those who don't have a celebrity's deep pockets. "There are communities all over the country which have mental health clinics—they're communities supported with tax dollars," Dr. Stratyner tells E! News. "There's help out there—I wish that celebrities would reinforce that more and more—that you can get help regardless of whether you have a celebrity's money or whether you're on public assistance."

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"A lot of mental health professionals, if you can't afford their fees, will be able to refer you to lower-fee options as well," says Dr. Camilla Mager, a practicing psychologist in New York. "Therapy really is accessible to everybody these days."

As Pinsky explains, "we're all entitled to parity in our mental health services and we are entitled to getting the standard of care which is the best—that's why it is the standard."

"You've got to buy your insurance," he adds, "but once you have that, you will have access to care."

So what should someone do if they hear a celebrity talking about their experience with mental illness and think they might be going through something similar? "The person should first see their primary doctor because there may be other medical conditions responsible for symptoms that concern them," NAMI spokesman Carolla tells E! News, adding, "The doctor may then refer the person to a psychiatrist or mental health clinic."

"Everyone should learn about mental illness: the various conditions like depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and their symptoms. There are many resources, such as www.nami.org," adds Carolla. "We all need to be able to recognize symptoms and watch out for each other—sometimes that means a friend making an appointment for a friend and going with them for support. The sooner a person gets help when symptoms start appearing, the better the outlook."