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Public Figures Can Help Ease Social Stigma of Mental Illness

Deborah Gray Health Guide August 29, 2007
  • I always have a weird reaction to hearing about a celebrity who is struggling with mental illness. I feel pity and empathy, but I also feel something akin to satisfaction. As I said, it's weird, at least on the surface.

     

    The satisfaction is partly due, I think, to the knowledge that I'm not alone in my fight with depression. Not that I thought I was, but since we all feel that we "know" celebrities to some extent through media coverage, it's more like finding out a friend or acquaintance is dealing with it rather than just seeing impersonal statistics of how many people have depression or another mental illness.

     

    When I read about actor Owen Wilson's apparent suicide attempt over the weekend, my reaction quickly became pity for the poor guy, unmitigated by any hint of satisfaction. Because of his popularity, I assume, as well as the fact that he had seemed to be very stable, the media has jumped all over the story like nothing I've seen in a long time.

     

    Since I haven't heard much about Wilson's personal life, and certainly nothing about a history of depression, I can only assume that he is a very private person. I hope someone close to him is keeping the newspapers, TV and internet away from him, because as far as this situation goes, he has no privacy left.

     

    Even a statement released by his publicist in which he pleaded for privacy was ignored by the reporters and photographers camping outside the hospital. I'm sure some enterprising soul has already attempted to bribe a hospital worker into taking a picture of Wilson in his hospital bed.

     

    Honestly, I can't imagine a more difficult set of circumstances in which to recover from a suicide attempt. (Please note - even though Wilson's representatives have not confirmed that he is hospitalized due to a suicide attempt, the police log reported the incident as such).

     

    So what comes next for Wilson when he emerges from the hospital? He will doubtless be encouraged by some people to unburden himself, make the rounds of the talk shows, maybe even write a book. After all, his privacy has been ripped to shreds as far as the apparent suicide attempt, so why not? (You might be catching on here to the fact that I wouldn't be recommending that he take this route).

     

    But, some might argue, when celebrities talk about taboo topics like mental illness, some of the stigma is lifted. In fact, the argument often goes, celebrities have an obligation to use their fame to help lift these taboos.

     

    I certainly don't disagree with the first part of that argument. I owe my diagnosis to William Styron's book about his depression. And one also might argue that celebrities give up their right to privacy. After all, their careers exist because of fans.

     

    Not so fast. I don't think that argument applies in this situation. We're not talking about Paris Hilton, after all. This guy is an actor. Just because he is successful at what he presumably enjoys doing, does that mean he has given up the right to privacy when it comes to something this intensely personal?

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    Let's look at this in terms of a situation that more of us non-celebrities can relate to. Am I obligated to tell people at work that I suffer from depression? After all, every little bit of information about depression helps to break down the stigma. But what about the potential effect on my career?

     

    This is not to say that I'm not grateful to celebrities who have talked about their own mental illness. I'm very grateful to people like Brooke Shields or Mike Wallace who have been very open. They have definitely, in my mind, contributed to the gradual breaking down of the stigma surrounding depression.

     

    But if Wilson wants to keep what he's going through to himself, that's his right. I sincerely hope for his sake that no one tries to convince him that he has an obligation to do his part to erase the stigma. It doesn't sound to me like he needs any more pain in his life right now.

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