Why We Crave Celebrity Mental Illness

Jordan Brown

You may not be following the Kanye West news, and I don't blame you if you aren't.

The media has a way of forcing  shocking information into our personal bubbles in a way that is incredibly off-putting.

But there's something else that's incredibly off-putting.

It's the way media outlets--and social media outlets that act as news sources--latch on to celebrity misfortune and amplify it.

I get it. Kanye (Now known as Ye, apparently?) is a polarizing person. But he also happens to live with bipolar disorder. And this poses a challenge for reporting on him.

Read on to learn about what I think we get very, very wrong about celebrity mental illness--and what I think we can do much, much better.

Celebrity Mental Illness in the Media

First, let's try to agree on something.

Media outlets can be tremendous sources of information in a hyper-connected world, but they can also be extremely slanted and misleading. When the goal is to increase viewership and ratings, incentives become misaligned, and the viewers suffer.

Kanye West is running for President of the United States.

You may have seen that headline. It stirs up emotions in people. It makes for a snappy, attention-grabbing title. But what's beneath the surface is that Mr. West lives with bipolar disorder. He's made reference to it before, and he's even mentioned it on an album cover.

Instead of providing objective reporting on the situation and using outrageous behavior as a teaching opportunity, media outlets--and the people they inspire--focus on Kanye's extreme, ridiculous behaviors. This makes for a great story, but it doesn't help the world understand the mental health spectrum that we're all on.

Why do we love celebrity mental illness drama? And why do we think it's OK when a celebrity breakdown like Kanye's--or Britney Spears', or Amanda Bynes', or an addiction issue like Ben Affleck's or Robert Downey Jr.'s--gets blown out of proportion and exposed in a glaringly dramatic light?

I think we do this because we like the exposure. We all know what it's like to feel unsteady--so unsteady that we teeter on the verge of breakdown. So we place our feelings at a safe distance. We latch on to the misfortune of celebrities because they are, to put it bluntly, celebrities, and we think they deserve the good and the bad that they get.

The problem with this is that no one deserves to be called out, teased, or taunted for mental health issues. This only makes mental health stigma worse.

Celebrity mental illness then becomes a "safe" way to talk about mental illness in general. We think we're making progress when we discuss an "exotic" mental illness like bipolar disorder at all, but we're doing the opposite. We're blowing up an image so large and slamming it into view that it becomes distorted--and we can't see the forest for the trees at that point. We can't see the system underpinning the disorder.

What Celebrity Mental Illness Could Be

As I alluded to above, celebrity mental illness could be a teaching opportunity. We heap praise and support on celebrities when they deal with catastrophic physical illness, but this is not so for mental health issues.

This doesn't just apply to celebrities. It explains why cancer is a "casserole illness" but mental health issues don't even usually conjure up a card or a public gesture of support.

If we're being honest, mental illness can be terrifying. It's alarming to see a woman yelling at the ghosts that surround her or a man punching into the air at demons unseen. But those are symptoms. And what we see as scary is probably 20 times more alarming for the person that is living with it and grappling with it every day. It's the case for any person, client, or patient I've gotten to know. And we might learn that reality if we asked celebrities how they're feeling, if we invited them to share their experiences.

Because that's what it comes down to: an invitation. No one person can be forced to discuss their mental health issues in a public way, but the thing about mental health issue is that it's social as much as mental and physical.

We change the climate and the public appetite for considering shocking mental health symptoms when we come together and offer support instead of judgment, when we don't buy into the shocking media headlines and, instead, create our own personal headlines of what we will and will not tolerate.

We obsess over celebrity mental illness because it's easier to do that then to consider that we often question the mental health issues within ourselves. Celebrities are proxies for our own feelings. Because they are rich and famous, we think that they can take on our own overwhelming emotions. They can't. They're human like us.

And when we shift the frame and the public conversation from one of judgment, sensationalism and laughter to one of empathy, hope, and support, we start to tell a different a story. A story that we're all in this together--and that mental health issues, as devastating as they can be, bind us together more than they tear us apart.