Celebrities and Mental Illness - "You're Nothing These Days Without a Dash of Bipolar, Darling!"

I have sometimes written in this blog about celebrities "coming out" as having had experience of mental illness, and how I felt such openness has been an aid to alleviating stigma. Among the most well-known of these is Stephen Fry, who recently admitted to attempting suicide only last year despite, seemingly, having it all. To my mind, such things show how mental illness can affect anyone, even the most talented and successful. However, in an article in "The Observer" newspaper by Barbara Ellen entitled "Severe depression is hell, even if you are famous", it was argued that increasing instances of celebrities suffering from mental illness are actually creating "compassion fatigue" and leading to "a whole new level of stigma".
Ellen argues that because of an often-felt contempt for the famous, when they are open about their mental health they are perceived as "over-diagnosed, over-indulged, attention-seeking fakes". Her argument centres particularly on the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which she states has come to be seen in the public psyche as "mainly a fashionable diagnosis beloved by celebrities who love to drone on about it in memoirs". As  a result, the public response to people with bipolar can be "hostile, sneering and disbelieving". To back up her argument, Ellen cites the treatment of celebrities like Kerry Katona, Ronnie O'Suillivan and Catherine Zeta Jones, whose latest stint in a clinic for her condition was treated "almost as if she'd swanned off on a Caribbean cruise".
So, far from alleviating stigma, Ellen thinks that the way celebrity sufferers of bipolar are treated can have a "drip-down effect on ordinary people", and that the famous are "lighting rods for myriad prejudices that too often seem just a new, sly way to bully and belittle mentally ill people".
Having read this my own enthusiasm for celebrity openness about mental ill health seems now to be somewhat naive, and I even have to admit that having had experience of a "severe" mental illness, my sympathies for the likes of Catherine Zeta Jones and Stephen Fry have often been muted by a belief that such moneyed and famous people do not have it quite so bad as those of us at the bottom of the heap. Like so many others, I'd perhaps do well not to think of celebrity sufferers just as people who go around saying, "you're nothing these days without a dash of bipolar, darling!" And as Ellen has made me aware, stigma can be like the many-headed Hydra, and once one has seemingly severed one pernicious head, two  more simply grow in its place.     


Dixie@dcrelief said…
Dear David,
"Compassion fatigue?" Wow there's a 'keeper' phrase. I've been running into that for quite a long time. Though I had no words to describe what I observed and experienced, these two words will do.
Celebrities sharing - it may well be gain for positive benefit for all, and not only for the individual. Yes there is great relief and growth in conveying one's on struggle... but not all are comfortable having it given media attention. I think celebs, by the virtue of them being deemed celebs acquire attention they might not otherwise want, yet are faced with. I'm grateful there's not a camera crew following my every move!
The compassion fatigue I've experienced is from my own circle of family. One expressed that they often thought it "convenient" when I was unable to attend a function. My friends have much more compassion having observed the ongoing pattern that is my own disability.
I must say though that every time celebrities focus on an issue, attempting to bring elightenment to the forefront, the media accuses them of power play and personal gain. Oh, and what has the media just received for free? Followers hanging on their every word; it's news! Dare I say corporate gain? Uh-oh, I think I have corporate fatigue, David.
Very good post and though I often miss the mark in answering what you may ask... it may hit me later and I'll have a light bulb moment! Lights, camera, action!
Take care, Dixie
Dixie@dcrelief said…
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Dixie@dcrelief said…
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Dixie@dcrelief said…
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Dixie@dcrelief said…
Sorry David. Yesterday my comment recorded three times. Not sure why and I hope this doesn't happen again.
klahanie said…
Hi David,

Yes, after fiddling about and trying to get caught up, I've finally arrived to comment on your thoughtful article. I also duly note Dixie's excellent response.

I shall just stick to my one observation that I alluded to you on Sunday night when you were fortunate enough to have me visit. I personally think that, although admirable that Stephen Fry and some notable others, have opened up with transparency, in an ironic way, I do think it has had a negative impact. Yes, almost like mental illness diagnosis, is a "designer" diagnosis. The illness of the month. It can desensitise the public perception of just how debilitating mental health concerns can be. You nailed it, David. "Compassion fatigue", may well be apt.

David said…
Hi Dixie,
It certainly seems, judging by your comment, that you had a light bulb moment when reading this post. So thank you for your insightful remarks.
Don't worry about blogger acting up and posting your comment an extra three times. After all, it just looks as if I've received more comments than usual!
Take care, Dixie.
Very Best Wishes,
David said…
Hi Gary,
Thanks for your comments.
It does indeed seem that celebrities being open about their mental health concerns can have the opposite of the intended effect, resulting in compassion fatigue amongst the public.
As I say, I had hoped that the likes of Stephen Fry (who despite his recent suicide attempt has described himself as "bipolar-light") would alleviate stigma through their openness, but this now seems somewhat naïve.
Thanks Gary, and it was lovely to see you the other day.
Best Wishes,

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