Mental health

How millennial celebrities are helping change mental health stigma

(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 professor 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?” After about a decade of giving this assignment, Deys noticed a certain video started coming up again and again.

The song’s title is not a word or a phrase, but a phone number. It’s by the rapper Logic, and the title was the national suicide hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

Deys was struck not only by the choice, but also by the reasons for the choice: Students were speaking openly about their mental health, and a music video had given them license to do it.

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

The Logic effect spread well beyond the campus of Nichols College. According to a study in the BMJ, the British medical journal, the rap song, which was released in 2017, correlated to a swell of calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “A reduction in suicides,” the report concluded, “was observed in the periods with the most social media discourse about the song.” Logic had quite possibly saved lives.

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As demand for mental health help has vaulted higher, celebrities ranging from musicians to TV stars to athletes have used their platforms and public profiles to discuss their own mental health challenges. It is both reflective of the broader societal shift that has destigmatized the discussion of emotional and mental health, and a trend that has made an impact in encouraging people to speak up about or address issues in their own lives.

“The way in which these disclosures have an impact is helping people learn what to do if they have health issues,” said Petra Gronholm, a research fellow at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London. “If they see celebrities doing that, they might do it themselves.”

While it’s unclear whether the cultural change on mental and emotional health preceded the increase in celebrities speaking out, or the other way around — “it’s a bit of a chicken and egg” situation, said Gronholm — the discussions of it throughout popular culture can help encourage openness and increase awareness of the issues.

“There are more platforms, which facilitate disclosure, which changes what’s ‘normal,’” said Gronholm, who co-authored 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 — far from the skating circles she knew — so when she informed the world of her fight, her main outlet for feedback was online.

“It was mostly on social first,” Gold said in an interview. “I think that’s also when I realized what I was talking about was a bigger deal than I thought it was. People seemed blown away at the concept.”

Gold said that she was particularly surprised at 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 for my bravery and honesty. It was strange at first. It had never occurred to me that there was another option besides being honest.”

Gold said she spoke out because to her it was the right way and the only way.

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

At Nichols College, Deys has seen several students stand in front of their peers and give speeches about their own crises, including episodes of self-harm and time in an inpatient facility. Both the openness and the response felt cathartic — like a social media post and reaction come to life.

“I don’t think 10 years ago there was near that kind of disclosure,” Deys said. “The student response is significant too.”

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

“That was really one of the catalysts to seeking mental health services,” said Paula Langford, a clinical social worker and the director of the Healing Institute of Baltimore. “You don’t have to walk into a building to get help. You also have the ‘I don’t want people to see I’m crazy’ factor. I think that’s really when we started seeing increasing in acceptance.”

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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. Of course, there is plenty of hatred and vitriol — and that causes its own emotional trauma — but even the chorus of backlash against that venom can encourage some to feel better about their own mental health situation.

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

So when stars such as Demi Lovato and Kelly Clarkson speak up about their own 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 some people talk to 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 may also expand mental wellness messaging to parts of the population that it doesn’t always reach consistently. Certain demographics deal with 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’re always looked at differently. They have this extra layer they have get through. It plays on their minds, and emotions. It’s never safe to just be human sometimes.”

Famed radio host Charlamagne tha God is one 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 drawn praise for the hosts’ willingness to broach topics like mental health and vulnerability. And the foundation started by actor Taraji P. Henson — the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation — has seen a 200 percent increase in Black men seeking its help in only three years.

“We’ve also seen more young people,” said Tracie Jade, the executive director of Henson’s foundation, which has provided 10,000 free hours of mental wellness help in just three years. “I’d say there’s empowerment — and seeking the help themselves. It’s not just waiting for someone to fly in and help.”

The National Institutes of Health reports that about 1 in 4 American adults are now living with a mental illness. This statistic, while certainly alarming, might reflect a sign of a willingness to speak up instead of hiding in shame. There is perhaps less fear of admission — from both celebrities and the rest of us.

“It’s a generation of people more accepting of everything and everybody and needing to move forward in time,” Gold says. “The archaic rules — we don’t need them anymore.”

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

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

If you or someone you know needs help, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. You can also reach a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

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