Well, the internet got me good this week. In a moment of rash curiosity I clicked on a link to an article and ended up on the website of a particularly unpleasant national newspaper. I wouldn’t do this intentionally. I deliberately avert my gaze in the Newsagents to avoid seeing this paper’s headlines because they tend to bring me out in pointless rage. Anyway, the article was posted on what is usually a very helpful website, and I like a good old-fashioned debate so I clicked…’Celebrities are making careers from mental health problems…’ Had I read the small print and checked the source I would have resisted. Honest.
Now there are several things that are obvious to me. If you’re tripping out on anxiety, sitting at home in the cold or dark because you’ve had to choose between heating and light, if you’re depressed and on the verge of eviction because you’re are barely surviving on benefits, if you are struggling with your medication and terrified that mental illness has made, or is going to make you, unemployable…(yes, I speak from experience) well, you’re not going to feel better because Ruby Wax knows what depression is like, or because Stephen Fry has spoken out about feeling suicidal . Having said that, the book Depression and how to Survive it co-written by Spike Miligan and Antony Clare probably saved my life. (And I do have a nerd-crush on Stephen Fry, but that’s beside the point I promise)
The idea that public figures should shut-up about mental illness now is ridiculous and dangerous. I want people to talk about mental health until everyone is sick of it. Until you could, should you so wish, reveal your schizophrenia in the same way you might mention your arthritis or any other debilitating condition and people will simply nod and ask you what you take for it and can you recommend a good specialist…
Who knows how many lives the embarrassed silence around mental illness has claimed? To what extent the myths and misconceptions have damaged and destroyed people? You’d have to go back to the beginning of civilisation to find out.
Yes there are pitfalls when it comes to celebrities speaking out, people speculate about their motives and even the validity, or existence, of their diagnoses. In fact some in the the media suggest it’s now ‘cool’ to be mentally ill (depending, it seems, on which illness you happen to have ) as if celebrities are advertising and endorsing mental illness rather than bringing it into the public domain.
Personally I don’t care if someone makes a mint from their illness. I don’t care if they somehow get more work or greater exposure because of it. Who does that hurt exactly? What hurts people is silence and stigma. And you can talk about whether people are good or bad role models, you can discuss the wisdom of this or that person speaking out. You can roll your eyes at rehab-celebrities and the negative press some might generate – but let’s face it, it would be hard to make the stigma of mental illness worse wouldn’t it?