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Jun 25 2014

Are Celebrities Responsible for Modeling Good Mental Health?

[Content note: depression, mental illness, suicide]

My newest piece at the Daily Dot is about Lana Del Rey, mental illness, and what we expect from artists and celebrities.

Singer Lana Del Rey has recently reignited an age-old discussion about the glamorization of depression and suicide among (and in) young musicians. In a Guardian interview she has since tried to distance herself from, Del Rey focused on death:

‘I wish I was dead already,’ Lana Del Rey says, catching me off guard. She has been talking about the heroes she and her boyfriend share—Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain among them—when I point out that what links them is death and ask if she sees an early death as glamorous. ‘I don’t know. Ummm, yeah.’

[...] It’s unlikely that statements like Del Rey’s actually make anyone go, “Huh, maybe I should try killing myself.” However, they can be harmful because they perpetuate norms that discourage seeking help and prioritizing mental health. Del Rey certainly isn’t single-handedly responsible for this, by the way—mental illness has long been associated with artistic brilliance, glamour, and even sometimes sexual desirability. Some believe that you can’t really be a great artist unless there’s something very wrong with your brain, but I think that’s largely confirmation bias. If you think that artists must be crazy, you’ll pay extra attention to the ones that are and little attention to the ones that aren’t.

We tend to expect that when artists go through difficult times, their way of coping is to make art about it. (Neil Gaiman gave a beautiful speech about this.) Making art can indeed help people deal with all sorts of adverse circumstances, including mental illness, but sometimes it’s not enough. Luckily, some artists, musicians included, have spoken out about seeing therapy and medication when they needed it—not an easy thing to do in a society where mental illness is still stigmatized and being a celebrity means having your private life constantly scrutinized and sold as entertainment.

On the other hand, I’m also leery when celebrities are expected to be “role models” and to demonstrate positive, healthy behavior to the children and teens who look up to them. It would certainly be nice if, when interviewed about her moods, Del Rey said something like, “I’ve been going through a hard time and dealing with lots of sadness, but I’m seeing a great therapist and taking good care of myself.”

But holding her responsible for the mental health of hundreds of thousands of young people is unfair and hypocritical. Del Rey’s young fans would benefit a lot more from seeing their own parents model good self-care, but we don’t encourage that in parents any more than we do in glamorous singers. Instead, we shame people who take poor care of themselves, and we shame people who are open about seeking therapy.

Read the rest here.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    Pen

    I think it’s also worth considering the responsibility of the media. I’m pretty sure that of all the things a celebrity says to an interviewer, it’s the ones with the most shock value that get emphasized. What about the well-being of the celebrity themselves? Assuming Ms Del Ray is feeling as vulnerable as she says, she’s hardly in a state to meet high pressure demands for being a role model and the kind of attention and controversy that’s just been directed towards her can’t possibly be doing her any good. The interviewer didn’t have to treat anything she said as fair game, they could have made a kind and socially responsible instead.

    1. 1.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Yeah, and based on her response to the interview, that’s her take on it as well.

  2. 2
    smrnda

    The media pointing out celebrities somehow failing to be good role models, for this or any other reason, seems like a manufactured controversy. It’s asking celebrities with mental health issues for their uncensored thoughts, and then complaining they haven’t said the proper things.

    Having had some really severe psychiatric issues through my life, I would really hope that nobody would be taking too much of what I said while in the worst states to be a guide to how to live, handle mental illness or anything else. And yeah, it’d be irresponsible to question me in that state. I’m also not very keen on questions from people that I don’t know on what I do – I actually got fairly angry once when someone without my permission told someone I’d been in a psychiatric facility and I got a bunch of questions asked by someone I didn’t know. The person was probably just curious, but it’s the type of thing I’d prefer to talk about when I’m ready, on my terms.

  3. 3
    freemage

    I’ve got a bigger focus on celebrities–mainly actors and writers–who portray mental illness ‘getting it right’. Lousy portrayals of autism, OCD, depression and so on are a real issue.

    Conveying the ‘right’ message about your own mental health to the general public falls much more into the above-and-beyond category for me; if they can manage it, fine, it’s to be lauded for the effort it takes and the good that it does, but it’s not fair to expect every celebrity who has some sort of mental health issue to be the personal spokesman for that condition, any more than it’s fair to demand that women and POCs be ‘good role models’.

    Demanding the exceptional of a sub-division of people only serves to marginalize those who are not exceptional within that same group.

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