Celebrity mental illness misunderstood, stigmatized

While mental illness and suicide are shamed in mainstream society, it is arguably even more stigmatized when victims are people who are expected to be perfect and successful in the public eye.

Celebrities who experience mental illness experience pressures that many of us will never understand—their work and personal lives are often open for the whole world to see and criticize. While people who have mental illnesses often suffer alone, celebrities might suffer alone in front of millions of watchful—and often hateful—eyes.

Former Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey recently disclosed her experience of having suicidal thoughts after getting knocked out in her fight against Holly Holm in November 2015. The fight was highly publicized before it even began, as Rousey prematurely harassed Holm on Instagram a day before the fight and bragged about how she was going to “really enjoy the beating” that she would give Holm. After her defeat by knockout, Rousey was the topic of crude jokes and criticisms on social media as backlash for her cockiness before the fight and unfortunately embarrassing loss.

Rousey admitted she felt like she was “nothing” and that nobody—meaning the fans and press that support her career—would care about her after losing her undefeated record. She said she thought about killing herself immediately after realizing her loss and that having a life with her boyfriend was the only reason she felt she had a purpose.

It is slowly becoming more accepting for celebrities to speak out about their own mental illness for awareness and solidarity purposes. Beloved Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher openly speaks about her experience with bipolar disorder and drug addiction on social media and uses her influence to inspire those who need help. Ex-Disney star and musician Demi Lovato infamously endured drug addiction and an eating disorder in the public eye and now campaigns for self-love and body positivity for her fans.

The shocking suicide of comedian Robin Williams in August 2014 seemed like a turning point for public opinion of celebrities who “go down a bad path.” Celebrities who publicly suffer addiction or get arrested for drugs are often stigmatized for not being able to “handle” fame. When a beloved celebrity such as Williams—whose struggles were invisible to anyone who did not closely know him—is so impacted by mental illness, the harmful stigma against struggling celebrities begins to be questioned.

Williams’ struggle exemplifies how anyone can be affected by mental illness, yet celebrities are still put on a pedestal and criticized when personal weakness is perceived. When actors or musicians publicly announce a hiatus from their work, rumors circulate about money or personal problems. Celebrities are constantly bombarded with rumors, questions and libel as media are obsessed with celebrity drama and gossip. Never is it taken at face value that celebrities are human beings that may need to take a break to deal with stress and mental health—just as many of us do.

Outsiders, fans and the millions of people who do not know the celebrities personally always assign them made up personalities or characteristics. When we expect celebrities to be happy, engaging, talented and completely unproblematic, we forget they are real people who have real flaws and issues.

It is significant that Rousey shared her story so publicly—especially after facing a tough defeat. The more we understand mental illness and the less we hold celebrities to God-like standards, the more progress will be made in awareness, prevention and support of people who struggle within themselves.