Fighting Stigma or Frightening Stuff?
Photo: Christian Payne
When a celebrity like Stephen Fry can publicly admit that he's recently attempted suicide and others like Catherine Zeta-Jones announce they're checking into a clinic for maintenance of a bipolar disorder, it would be tempting to believe that we've reached a new point in the acceptance of mental illness.
Certainly, people are more open than they have ever been about mental distress. Celebrity accounts fill the tabloids and the internet abounds with stories from those either in the midst of recovery or resigned to a lifetime of psychiatric input. Films have leading characters with bipolar, MP's have discussed their mental health woes, and we’ve made it illegal to discriminate on mental health grounds. These are signs that we're beginning to understand mental ill-health as just another form of distress. Given all this evidence, you could be forgiven for thinking that the stigma of mental illness is a thing of the past. The reality though, sometimes seems very different.
In a recent post on this site, Anne Cooke and Dave Harper report on the relatively unsuccessful Time to Change campaign, which has failed to alter people's perceptions of mental illness to any significant extent. The reasons are complex, but research suggests that bio-genetic causal theories and diagnostic labelling are both related to fear and desire for social distance. This is distinct then, from the idea of sufferers experiencing overwhelming distress linked to difficult life experiences.
Courageous as it may be, I would have to question how useful it is for Fry to admit to wanting to kill himself recently. While we can feel compassion for anyone in such a predicament, I'm left wondering how helpful this is for the public. It might well foster sympathy, blighted as he is by bipolar disorder, but that does not necessarily lead to more tolerance or enlightened attitudes. On the contrary, it could be argued that those who have no experience of such things are more likely to be scared stiff than to open their hearts and minds.
The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, admits to having been moved by Fry's suicide attempt. The public has known for some time about Fry's struggle with extreme moods, but there is shock and surprise that he could experience suicidality. Most people have only experienced ordinary sadness and find it difficult to imagine that there are those among us who sometimes want to kill themselves. When this becomes apparent, the result is horrified anxiety or sadly, outright disdain.
How can it be, they wonder, that the witty, urbane and gifted Fry can seemingly enjoy himself on QI while harbouring desperate and secret anguish? Twitter threads were indeed informative: ‘What the f--- does he have to be depressed about?’ tweeted one. Tony Blair’s former aide, Alistair Campbell, who also suffers depression, had a quick riposte: ‘To those asking what Stephen Fry has to be depressed about, would you ask what someone has to be cancerous, diabetic or asthmatic about?’
Well no, they wouldn’t. But despite his diagnosis, the public clearly wonders why Fry gets so depressed, just as they would be curious why glamorous film star Catherine Zeta Jones becomes dysfunctional enough to check into a clinic. Unable to perceive that the wealthy and famous are not exempt from life's vicissitudes, the public is yet again left with the idea that those with mental health diagnoses are irrevocably ill and at the mercy of dark forces. They are 'other' and different.
Fry has also appeared in a video in which he meets ‘Electroboy’ alias Andy Behrman –an LA based bipolar sufferer who has written a bestselling book about his experience of multiple electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatments. The video, currently going viral, contains footage of outdated ECT procedures in which sufferers are shocked without anaesthetic. ECT is never given without anaesthetic in Britain, but the public may not know this. Indeed, Fry, who is president of the mental health charity Mind, admits on film that he was unaware that people with bipolar mood swings are prescribed ECT. But does this potentially frightening film clip really help to break down stigma? Or does it scare the public as well as stigmatise those who have had ECT, or may receive it in future?
We know from research that the poor are far more likely to suffer mental health difficulties because their lives are stressful. But if the rich and gifted admit to being overwhelmed and unable to take possession of themselves as a result of mental disorder, then how much more likely is this for the average sufferer, the public reasons. Revelations may well increase public sympathy and invite further disclosures, but it seems there is little evidence that they have a positive impact on discriminatory practices or the public mindset.
So should celebrities keep quiet? Far from it. Disclosure and openness are merely a first step. We need to go further and help the public break down fears and ignorance. But to do that, celebrity sufferers should think carefully about the messages they are putting out and how they will be received.
The actress Glenn Close, who recently revealed that her sister has bipolar disorder and has begun a charity in her honour, admits to wishing she had paid more attention to mental illness when she made the movie 'Fatal Attraction'. She confesses to having fed into the idea that people with mental health issues are dangerous, in her one-dimensional portrait of bunny boiler Alex Forrest. But when Close's sister became ill, the actress was able to see things differently. It's happened to my sister and so it could happen to me.
Here, then seems to lie the answer. There is evidence that people are able to change their attitudes to mental illness when they personally know someone who suffers from one. It is experience and closeness to mental health difficulties that crashes the barrier. And it is an understanding of mental health issues often being the result of extreme experiences such as poverty and trauma that fosters compassion. Celebrities, either out of the closet or on their way to being so, might want to bear it in mind.