Stephen Fry led the way in 2006 by being the first celebrity to admit publicly that they suffer from a mental health problem. He has since spoken honestly and openly about his struggle with the manic-depressive condition, bipolar disorder, and worked closely with Bipolar UK in the making of the documentary ‘A Secret Life of a Manic Depressive’. Ruby Wax says that she has experienced episodes of depression for most of her life and found herself hospitalised in 2007 in what she called “the tsunami of all depressions” . After her recovery, and realising how widespread the issue of mental illness is, Ruby set-to and studied the make-up of the brain for a year and a half before writing her book ‘Sane New World’. She spoke about her own experiences with depression while promoting the book. Bill Oddie suffered a breakdown after being axed from his role as presenter on BBC’s Springwatch in 2008. Bill, who had suffered from depression in the past, was then diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and consequently became a patron of the charity, Bipolar UK.
Ten years ago, mental health was barely on the table for discussion and celebrities certainly wouldn’t have been putting themselves in the limelight about their issues. So isn’t it great that celebrities are leading the way in removing the negative connotations associated? Apparently, not necessarily so.
Surprisingly, it is celebrity mental-health-champion Bill Oddie who has recently caused a stir. At the start of the week, an article in The Times reported that Bill Oddie has taken a step back from his work with mental health charities because he thinks that celebrities risk making mental illnesses appear ‘fashionable’. He also added that people are “making a career” out of speaking about depression – clearly something that Ruby Wax felt was aimed at her, as she responded by blogging about Oddie’s misunderstanding of her work. Whilst Oddie acknowledges the attention brought to the matter by Ruby Wax and Stephen Fry, he reportedly said that comparison between the lives of a celebrity to that of a normal person wouldn’t necessarily do much good.
Whilst it is true that celebrities have lives that are undeniably different to that of our own, does this mean that the promotion of mental illness by celebrities is unhelpful or even defamatory to the cause?
Surely the fact that celebrities are speaking about their own experiences just proves the point that mental health issues can affect anyone from any walk of life, no matter how much money they earn, how many possessions they have, or how successful their careers are. Does this not enhance the cause that we should de-stigmatise mental health problems because it is so universal?
Whether we like it or not, the influence of celebrities is ingrained in our culture. Campaigns such as ‘Time to Change’ have been working tirelessly to advance the cause of mental illness and remove the stigma associated with it. In-fighting and counter-arguments between celebrities who are working in the interests of mental health is surely counter-productive to getting involved with the cause in the first place. While there is still a long way to go in ensuring a ‘parity of esteem’ for mental health compared to physical health, there has irrefutably been progress beyond what could be thought possible. So, how can we not congratulate the celebrities that lead the way in the societal shift of attitudes?