Coming out on mental illness

Kristen Bell is my new hero. And it’s not just her charming rendition of “Love is an Open Door” as a Disney princess in Frozen (in duet with Santino Fontana). In an interview released last week, Bell acknowledged her long term efforts to manage anxiety and depression, including the effective use of medication since she was a teen.

Bell is clear, composed, and very sharp in explaining how important it is to challenge the stigma that comes with mental illness. Coming out is a powerful way to do so, but it’s also risky. As an actor with a star profile, she commands high fees and is expected to carry big budget films. Producers wary about their investments can always think now about someone else. But acknowledging risk is part of coming out. In this way, she is just like those brave undocumented youth, gays and lesbians, and many others who challenge stigma head-on. Her celebrity and her candor makes it at least a little easier for the next person as well.

Surely, there couldn’t be a much smaller share of mentally ill people in Hollywood than elsewhere in American life. Indeed, a growing tranche of journalism is devoted to documenting the crazy stuff tha635720452396985694-Screen-Shot-2015-07-09-at-1.26.56-PMt celebrities do. But more typically, that’s troublesome behavior: substance abuse, tantrums, and acting out–on and off set. You’d think those things would make it harder to get hired.

Kristen Bell, deliberately or not, is part of a larger effort to destigmatize mental illness. Less famous folks have taken on displaying a semicolon, often tattooed, to make the same point (comma underneath): that mental illness is more common and more treatable than we think. Organized by Project Semicolon, the idea is to show people struggling with mental illness that they are not alone–and to show the rest of the world that they need not be ashamed.

Kristen Bell isn’t the only well-known actor to choose to reveal her struggle–and success. Wil Wheaton, best known as a teen actor on Star Trek: The Next Generation, has been admirably candid on his blog for years. I think he first came out in 2012:

I haven’t ever talked about this in public, but today’s a good day to start.

I haven’t ever felt suicidal, but I do have Depression and Anxiety. I suffered for no good reason for decades, until I couldn’t reconcile my awesome life with feeling terrible all the time. Talking therapy wasn’t ever enough for me, and I was very resistant to medication, because I believed (and continue to believe) that we are an over-medicated culture.

But, still, I wouldn’t just sit around and suffer if I had a treatable non-mental Me, cosplaying as an adult who knows exactly what you're up to.illness, so I went to a doctor, and I got better. Now, I take some medication every morning, and it has made all the difference in my life….

So, please, if you or someone you know suffer from Depression — with or without thoughts of suicide — please talk to someone, and get help from a doctor. As Jenny says, Depression lies, and you don’t need to let it control your life.

Both Kristen Bell and Wil Wheaton are coming out to make it easier for others.

But however much risk they took on in going public, one place even worse than Hollywood is high school.  Two years ago, 

Again, the message was clear and smart and sharp and the messengers courageous. I haven’t heard them sing or watch them act, but I admire them even more than I do Kristen Bell and Wil Wheaton. If they’re all successful, one day it won’t take courage to come out.

Is mental health awareness a movement? Battling stigma and exposing a problem is surely a start. But there’s also policy work to be done. Although federal law now compels health insurers to cover mental illness comparably to physical illness, no one even pretends that this is actually the case. And while the crusaders in this post had not only the conviction, but also the resources, to get effective treatment, many many people are left behind.

Coming out, often the culmination of a long process for an individual, is the first step of a political movement.



About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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1 Response to Coming out on mental illness

  1. Pingback: Coming out in the immigration debate | Politics Outdoors

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