There are a variety of reactions a person might have when celebrities share publicly their experiences with having anxiety: happiness, optimism, annoyance, fatigue, or even heightened anxiety of their own. Even as a mental health professional, I have felt most of these emotions.
With some celebrity stories about anxiety, I feel so excited that I want to put their magazine cover in my office for my patients to devour. With others, I find myself feeling jaded, rolling my eyes, and wanting to toss the article before someone could walk into my office and have the chance to read it.
I find myself thinking, Ugh, another celebrity making headlines for experiencing the same thing that more than 18 percent of people in the U.S. experience each year, and that I have seen five patients for today alone.
Or, a thought will creep in along the lines of, Is this really newsworthy? Didn't I just read about someone else yesterday?
I'm aware this sounds pretty harsh—especially from a psychiatrist.
People with mental health issues are still too often stigmatized in our culture, wrongly portrayed as weak or emotional, and this deters people from seeking care. So any increased awareness of what it's really like to live with a mental health condition is obviously beneficial and extremely needed. I should be happy that anyone—celebrity or not—is speaking up about these topics. So why do I occasionally have a similar "here we go again" reaction when a celebrity talks about dealing with anxiety?
At first, I thought I was arbitrarily taking sides in a “who told a better anxiety story” war. I wondered if I was reading the news more like gossip and was more attracted to the most dramatic story. I felt ashamed for even thinking that the normalization of mental illness by a famous person in a world full of stigma could be anger-inducing or “bad” in any way. But, in talking with both patients and colleagues and observing social media reactions when a famous person discusses mental health issues, it’s pretty clear to me that I’m not alone in going through periods of feeling some amount of celebrity-anxiety fatigue.
As one writer once reminded via Twitter, “It's great that celebrities are open about anxiety/depression now. But don't forget that your unfamous neighbor is struggling too. Hug them.”
As another Twitter user recently asked, “Why is it news when celebrities open up about their temporary ‘physical anxiety’ while millions of others have anxiety or worse mental health problems and can’t get the help they need because of lack of #insurance?”
Someone else shared, “What is the deal with every celebrity dealing with anxiety? Stop trying to glamourize it.”
What I’ve realized is, it really all comes down to perception. The same way a book or television show might affect a person differently (just look at reviews), real-people stories have the same effect. And there are very real reasons for why a person may perceive a celebrity’s story of dealing with anxiety as unrelatable, or even borderline offensive—even if that celebrity had only the best intentions.
There are several possible reasons for why a celebrity disclosure has the potential to be divisive or offensive—and they seem to be rooted in issues of relatability and motivation.
When the person is a celebrity and we know that publicity is part of their job, it may make us question their motives. A magazine cover reveal could be perceived as insincere, exaggerated, or self-serving (fame! philanthropy!). Readers are often not celebrities themselves and might feel that by highlighting celebrity stories we are somehow placating the stories of others or using mental illness to draw attention to the person and not to the disorder.
It might feel unfair to someone when the media highlights a celebrity’s anxiety-related anecdote, which seemingly validates their lived experience while so many others are still stigmatized or not taken seriously. It’s not hard to imagine a person at home thinking, I was just talking to my mom or my friends about my own anxiety, and that’s certainly not the reaction they had.
A person might feel defeated because she didn't garner the same understanding and support. I frequently have patients who tell me they were met with unsupportive advice from friends or family along the lines of, “Suck it up” or, “We all feel that way at some point, you are fine.” In an invalidating environment, the celebrity story could even be used against the sufferer, like, “That famous person said they had anxiety, and look at them, they are just fine. So why aren’t you?”
Celebrity stories could make a person feel like we are ignoring the stories of those who are struggling so hard and don’t necessarily have a privilege pedestal and fan base to lean on for support and encouragement.
Or, someone with anxiety might simply not relate to their story. If a person on the receiving end of a celebrity’s perspective doesn’t feel like they share enough common ground with the discloser, a dividing line gets drawn. They might feel like they suffered (or are still suffering) more than the celebrity, for example, and might have little to no empathy if they feel as if they are sicker or struggling more than the A-lister.
It’s possible that these stories sometimes incite hopelessness instead of hope. For example, if a celebrity describes their ability to “now function” with their anxiety, that sentiment may place judgment on those who still can’t, even if it’s completely unintentional. On the opposite hand, if a celebrity with their privilege is still living with debilitating anxiety, one might think, what chance does an average person like me have to get better without access to those same resources?
Some people could feel more hopeless or discouraged when they hear that someone with more resources and privilege than they have still can't get their anxiety under control.
It may come off as if a celebrity is actually referring to feeling anxious or stressed, rather than living with a clinical anxiety disorder. Let’s face it, most people deal with some amount of day-to-day anxiety. But there is an important difference between someone saying, “I have felt super anxious or stressed at points in my career,” versus, “I have a diagnosed anxiety disorder that has significantly affected my ability to function day to day.”
This is not to say that typical anxiety and stress shouldn’t be taken seriously; but by dramatically emphasizing a range of typical emotions, some celebrities might be pathologizing themselves incorrectly, and as a result, directly contributing to the stigma of mental illness. A celebrity may also be discussing a mental health disorder that they do not actually have, causing resentment and further division from others with that particular diagnosis.
Lastly, we sometimes wrongly assume that someone with so much fame and fortune can't possibly have any reason to struggle with anxiety. When we look at a celebrity we often think that they have everything anyone could possibly want—fame, fortune, a job they love, and power. That idealized life we envision for them often comes with a false assumption that their life must be perfect and they have no want for anything or stress to speak of.
But that assumption is simply incorrect, as everyone faces challenges in life. Anxiety disorders do not care if you make a million dollars a movie or minimum wage. They are, in that way, the great equalizer. Mental health issues do not discriminate, and no amount of power makes someone immune to anxiety.
As a psychiatrist, I’ve also spent a lot of time learning and talking about self-disclosure.
With the uptick in celebrities revealing their personal experiences with anxiety, I’ve repeatedly wondered about how many stars had a “should I or shouldn’t I” conversation with a publicist or agent about whether they should share.
As psychiatrists, we are taught in training to analyze our decision and motivation to answer every question from a patient from the more benign (“Where are you from?”) to the more personal (“Have you ever felt like this yourself?”). Pretty much everything we decide to share with our patients we do so only after significant thought about the effect of sharing that information on that patient and the purpose of sharing to the therapeutic relationship. In other words, before becoming a not-so-blank slate, we pause and ask ourselves, does our answering the question serve the patient and their care in some important way—or are we simply answering the question to satisfy our own desires?
Of course, no one can really be expected to think about self-disclosure on the same level that a psychiatrist has to. The patient-therapist relationship is about as unique as relationships can get (just think about what you tell a psychiatrist versus a friend), and it’s not the same relationship between a celebrity and a fan—nor should it be.
Self-disclosure is also a skill that takes years of training, and even still, it is hard to do and case-specific. One reason it’s so hard to get used to is that the self-disclosure pause is arguably in direct opposition to how we normally operate when we have regular conversations. We are taught at a young age to search for things we have in common with someone. Highlighting and focusing on similarities (even superficial ones) can even make strangers feel more connected. We do this by listening for cues that allow us to say things like: “You’re from Florida? Me too!”
So as an average person, hearing or reading your favorite star say, “I know what it feels like to have anxiety,” can absolutely fuel empathy and camaraderie. It can also decrease the distance between the celebrity and the reader and they can feel closer, just with a story—and that’s a positive thing worth remembering.
The reality is, we can't know a celebrity's (or anyone's) motive for disclosing their mental illness. But it's OK to feel all sorts of ways about it.
In psychiatry, we often talk about how we can learn a lot from our own reactions to things—to stories, or to different patients, for example. We might feel extra close to a patient that reminds us of our grandmother, or we might feel nostalgic listening to a patient’s stories that more closely resemble our own. But, we would never know the reasons for our feelings (and be able to use them to be better psychiatrists to the patients causing those feelings!), if we didn’t pause, listen, and learn from our own reactions.
So if when you see, say, five celebrities in a month discuss their battle with anxiety, it’s fine to feel jaded, or angry, or absolutely delighted even. Disclosure may not always be universally unifying—and that’s OK. If you feel annoyed, be annoyed, and if you feel anxious, be anxious, but consider pausing and asking yourself why you are feeling that way. You can even bring it up with your therapist if you work with a mental health professional.
And in the back of your mind, remember that stigma attached to mental illness discourages people from seeking a diagnosis and treatment. So it’s a fantastic thing to see people with a voice and huge platform willingly open up about a mental health issue and help normalize it. This is especially the case when disclosures could uniquely target younger adults who consume media at high rates, and whose long delay to receiving treatment leads to worse outcomes or disability. Seeing a public figure disclose something so personal could save a life—or at least improve the quality of it.
Jessica A. Gold, M.D., M.S., is an assistant professor in the Department in Psychiatry at Washington University in St Louis. Find her on Twitter @drjessigold.