About two weeks ago, David Letterman became one of the latest celebrities to publicly talk about mental health struggles. In an appearance on This Morning, the legendary late-night host and recent Kennedy Center honoree recounted his long journey to control his depression. Not only was his honesty courageous, but some of the details he shared were a stigma-fighters’ dream.
Letterman talked about his reluctance to seek medical treatment, and was very clear about the difference between the depression and anxiety he’s faced and the everyday emotional difficulties that are a part of everyone’s lives. On the topic of depression, Letterman was sincere and eloquent.
As I continue to emphasize, mental illness is still highly stigmatized, and most people aren’t able to openly discuss it. For reasons ranging from a lack of information to generations of socialization to fear, the mental health conversation just isn’t always happening, and that silence is damaging. Failing to freely and honestly discuss our mental health can hold us back from healthy relationships, harm our self-esteem, and prevent us from getting necessary help.
Celebrity comings-out like Letterman’s are good news for the mental health community for a variety of reasons.
1. They put mental health in the news. Every news outlet, high or low, has use for a celebrity story, so and especially engaging one will get plenty of play. As we know, the more we hear something talked about in the media, the more comfortable we’ll feel talking about it.
2. They provide inspiration to other people with similar struggles. I, for example, personally admire Demi Lovato. She overcame illness to return to a career through which she serves as a highly visible role model, particularly to young women. She’s very active as an advocate for mental health, and her story is one of hope.
3. They provide a face to misunderstood issues and concepts. The fact that mental health affects everyone’s life is often not fully understood, especially because it’s not always as concrete as physical health. Hearing about real, personal experiences with mental health helps us to better comprehend it.
4. They can disprove stereotypes. Media images of people with mental illness have long relied on stereotypes: “crazy eyes,” unkempt appearances, a tendency toward violence, social ineptitude, and a dangerously charming smile are among the characteristics we see on a high proportion of media portrayals of people with mental illness. When successful, talented, and well-liked people come forward to talk about their own mental health struggles, we learn that the stereotypes are far from reality.
I should clarify, though, that I don’t feel that any person should feel obligated to publicly talk about their mental health. Mental health is a deeply personal matter, and the line between talking about it with a support system and talking about it publicly is not a fine one.
I do feel, though, that people in the public eye should be aware that they’re in a position of influence. They should be aware of the good they can do by speaking out about the causes that are important to them, especially those cause to which they can lend a more personal touch. I would encourage such people who are able and ready to talk about their mental health to do so. The courage of those who have already done so is appreciated and commended.