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Calhoun, Gold Evaluate the Positive Impact of Celebrity Self-Disclosure of Mental Illness

March 25, 2020
by Jordan Sisson

Celebrity self-disclosure and advocacy of mental health can boost normalization and awareness, and even encourage people to seek help, according to a new paper written by two doctors with Yale connections.

Amanda J. Calhoun, MD, MPH, is a current Yale psychiatry resident in the Albert J. Solnit Integrated Adult/Child Psychiatry program. Jessica Gold, MD, MS, is a Yale School of Medicine graduate and the daughter of Mark Gold, MD, an alumnus of the Yale Psychiatry residency. Together they co-authored the paper, titled “’I Feel Like I Know Them’: the Positive Effect of Celebrity Self-disclosure of Mental Illness,” published in Academic Psychiatry last month.

Calhoun and Gold said there seemed to be a lot of literature surrounding the negative effects of the media on mental health, but not much was being written evaluating the positive aspects and the ways psychiatrists can leverage the media as a tool. They eventually narrowed down that broad topic to celebrity self-disclosure.

“I would hope that we would grow to see the importance, academically, to this topic even though it feels like this is not traditional academic territory,” Gold said. “Anything that affects our patients, on such a broad scale, should matter to us, and should matter just as much as a pharmaceutical discovery.”

“I think we need to be in the spaces where our patients are.”

They explored the positive impact of celebrities sharing their mental health stories, and using their influence and identity. Research has shown that if every person knew someone with a mental illness, stigma would decrease, which Calhoun and Gold say illustrates the benefits of self-disclosure.

For example, they wrote, Princess Diana of Wales was known for speaking openly about her battle with bulimia. Consequently, the number of women who sought treatment for bulimia doubled — a phenomenon that has become known as the “Diana effect.”

Calhoun and Gold also pointed to a study analyzing attitudes towards bipolar disorder after singer Demi Lovato’s disclosure of her illness found that people who had a higher celebrity attachment to her had fewer negative stereotypes about those with bipolar disorder

“Fans at home learn that it is not ‘taboo’ to have a diagnosis or seek treatment for it, and talking about mental health becomes normalized,” they said.

Portrayal of mental illness in popular culture is lacking, particularly underrepresented populations such as men and African Americans, Calhoun and Gold wrote. Underrepresented minorities often have more severe psychiatric disorders and less access to treatment, Calhoun said.

“Representation is so important. If you are looking at a character on a TV that has a mental illness and you also have a mental illness, but that person doesn’t look at all like you, it’s not very comforting or helpful,” she said.

However, “by using their influence and intersectional identities, celebrities can lift up underserved groups and help make mental health identifiable, accessible, and relatable to all,” they said.

Professional-wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and actresses Taraji P. Henson and Jada Pinkett Smith, are examples of celebrities that have used their platforms for mental health advocacy in underrepresented populations, they said.

Calhoun and Gold acknowledged some potential pitfalls of holding celebrities up as examples, such as potential for violating the Goldwater rule, which cautions against psychiatrists making public statements concerning diagnosis of public figures whom they have not formally evaluated, or it could be seen as excessively glorifying celebrities.

Still, media representation and celebrity self-disclosure can serve as a powerful method of communication to increase awareness of mental health and normalize psychiatric illnesses.

A key part of achieving public education and awareness of mental health is ensuring professionals are taught to effectively communicate using the media and advocate for mental health, they said.

“The average, non-university affiliated, person is not going to pay a fee to read an academic journal. If we really want to break down barriers between psychiatrists and the general public, we have to find ways to merge psychiatry with the media” Calhoun stated. “We need to think outside of the box of academia to lessen that gap.”

They concluded: “Psychiatrists must acknowledge that the media is not going away and the general population will continue to garner most of their mental health information from it. Effective health communication and celebrity narratives can be incorporated into professional education for trainees and physicians, so that they can be used in future advocacy efforts and public education.”

Submitted by Jordan Sisson on March 25, 2020