A few weeks ago, rapper Badshah got candid about dealing with clinical depression and severe anxiety. Similarly, Nargis Fakhri spoke about how she took a break from Bollywood to focus on her mental health as she “wasn’t feeling happy and was missing her family.” Shehnaaz Gill admitted that she had battled depression. On Mother’s Day last year, Sameera Reddy shared a post on her social media channel about how she faced post-partum depression. Mental health practitioners have welcomed these accounts for various reasons.
For one, they definitely help build awareness about mental health. Secondly, they open up multiple avenues for talking about mental health without societal and cultural barriers—something that is missing in our society where people feel that they are immune to mental health disorders. We chat with practitioners about how celebrities have been much more candid than before about these issues and how their narratives are helping the public.
A shift in perception
One reason for this sudden willingness to share is the pandemic. Psychiatrists and psychologists feel that the pandemic brought everyone together in ways more than one, normalising mental health and mental health issues.
Dr Amit Malik, a clinical psychiatrist and founder of Innerhour, a psychological health platform, puts this in perspective by saying that the pandemic has, in some senses, been a big equalizer. “Most of us have struggled in one way or another. Accepting one’s own struggles and talking about them is an important part of dealing with it, which might be one of the reasons more celebrities are opening up about their mental health issues,” he says.
He adds that individuals struggling with mental health issues often feel great empathy for others who may be experiencing the same, and they want to reach out and help. Speaking openly can make that happen. “It creates a sense of community, a sense of not being alone, which is very important,” he says.
Celebrities who have shared their mental health challenges have often received support and positive feedback, which is heartening. This can give other stars the strength to come out and speak openly about their own difficulties, he says.
Manavi Khurana, founder and counselling psychologist at the New Delhi-based Karma Centre for Counselling & Wellbeing, a mental health organization, attributes the openness to an environment of easy communication and safety that has enabled folks to be vulnerable and talk about their mental health journeys. “What was once considered a sign of weakness is now looked at from the lens of resilience and strength. I’m glad to witness the shift,” she says.
Decades of stigma
Historically, B-Town hasn’t viewed mental health issues considerately or sympathetically. It has taken a lot of courage for celebrities to get to the point they’re currently at when it comes to being comfortable with these conversations. They may have been struggling with it for years, but it is only recently that they have started speaking out about it.
Tanu Choksi, psychologist, counsellor and associate fellow and supervisor in RE- CBT, The Albert Ellis Institute, New York, gives an example of Parveen Babi, who was a leading actor through the 1970s and 80s and who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.“Though she was a prolific actress, she is only remembered in terms of her ‘madness’,” says Choksi. “In the early 1980s, she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia (something she repeatedly denied), was incarcerated at an airport (JFK, New York) and literally put in a mental asylum, and by the time she returned to India, she was a different person.” Choksi adds, “Due to her illness, she mistrusted everyone in her life, and sometimes publicly accused people from the fraternity (Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjay Dutt, to name a few) of wanting to kill her.”
Choksi says that though 1980s Bollywood seems like a lifetime ago, Babi’s story is a good example of a public struggle with a very private illness and a case in which both the public and the media made her life hell.
In this narrative, the celebrity’s struggle was made public without her consent, and she got no sympathy. Choksi also refers to the way the media reported on the Sushant Singh Rajput case in 2020. She believes that Singh’s death was a turning point in the discourse of his battle with depression. His suicide came as a shock and a reminder that celebrities are not invincible. “The discussion of celebrities being open about their mental health has seen a trajectory, but along the way, there have been certain triggers that acted as a catalyst to the narrative,” she explains.
The public impact
Since celebrities are idolised and put on a pedestal, their fans and the general public are able to relate to them better when they open up about their mental health battles.
Suhasini Subramanian, an expressive arts-based therapist and senior counselling psychologist at the Karma Center for Counselling and Well-being in New Delhi, explains this by saying, “I find that celebrities are often idolized and considered to be far beyond the reach of mere mortal concerns. Therefore, I imagine that seeing these revered figures share relatable concerns can be an enlightening and humanizing experience for the public.”
She adds that in the cases of high-profile celebrities, it also helps to reiterate that financial success and public acclaim do not exempt you from mental health concerns, which may help challenge the misconception often held in this respect.“We often hear narratives of people ‘having it all’ or having no reason to struggle just because they have money, looks, success, fame and/or material wealth, which, of course, is not actually representative of reality,” she says.
Dr Malik says that hearing or reading about the struggles of others addresses the sense of isolation that a mental illness can evoke or the feeling that you are the only one struggling.“Feeling alone or isolated often worsens the symptoms and interferes with help-seeking behaviour. Celebrities opening up about it can make a person feel that it is okay to struggle and it is okay to ask for help,” he says. He observes that there is a trend of more people seeking help and talking about their mental health post such conversations. “Our therapists have often heard clients talk in sessions about how it was a celebrity’s story that inspired them to seek help.”
Dr Malik cites research that has indicated that if every person knew someone with a mental health concern, it would significantly reduce stigma. “Such conversations also expand people’s sense of awareness of what having a mental health issue can look like. Research indicates that celebrities influence health-related outcomes,” he says.
Bridging the gap
Subramanian feels that there is still work to be done in bridging the gap between awareness and action. She elucidates that mental health challenges are not a ‘battle’ to be won or conquered. “In reality, this can often be the distinction between “battling mental health challenges” versus “living with a mental health condition” or “coping with mental health challenges,” she says.
For most individuals, this may include having regular therapy sessions, medication when required, and prioritizing and practising self-care to maintain their well-being in the long run. Along with destigmatizing mental illness, it is critical to challenge the stigma around the practices part of mental well-being.”
According to her, this translates into celebrities speaking publicly about mental health and embracing their roles as advocates. “Advocacy requires a great deal of knowledge and understanding even beyond one’s own personal experiences and natural preferences,” she says.
She stresses this point by giving an example of a public persona who may say that they “never take medication.” “Although they have a right to personal choice, this sentiment can be influential and deleterious to others. I would hope that celebrities take this on board and take the time to gather knowledge and inform their own understanding on the subject prior to sharing,” she says.
Khurana echoes Subramanian’s sentiment when she says that celebrities’ conversations about mental health are helpful but require regulation, moderation, and safety. She believes that celebrities can use their platform and following effectively.
“We need more authentic portrayals of human experiences that social media platforms are often unable to offer. Folks with greater outreach sharing experiences can initiate conversations around well-being and seeking support. I hope mental health is not considered a “trend” as trends die out. We need continuous awareness building, safe disclosure, and informed sensitivity to be treated like personal responsibility,” she says.
Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist