Who Are Celebrity Mental Health Ambassadors Actually Serving?

It’s going to take more than a winning smile and relatable story to advocate for mental health.
There is a common thread that weaves through three high-profile incidents driving the conversation about casual racism, each coming to a head in September. Sports journalist Erin Molan took Daily Mail Australia to court for defamation, defending her right to joke about racial stereotypes on the radio; former Bachelorette Georgia Love ‘joked’ on Instagram that an Asian restaurant might cook a pet cat for lunch; and former TV presenter Jessica Rowe interviewed Pauline Hanson on her podcast, sidestepping the politician’s long history of cruel racism. 
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Molan, Love and Rowe have many similarities, but one, in particular, deserves closer inspection. All three women are vocal anti-bullying and mental health advocates.
Many people are eager to applaud Molan’s involvement in passing new cyberbullying laws. Rowe’s passionate mental health advocacy has seen her appointed as an ambassador for Beyond Blue and as a Member of the Order of Australia.
And yet their actions this September show a lack of understanding about how even casual racism and microaggressions can seriously impact the mental health of young Black, Indigenous and young people of colour in Australia.
As celebrities, they don’t necessarily have any obligation to think about this. But as figureheads for the growing national discussions around bullying and mental health, they absolutely do.

How racism impacts mental health

Racism can have serious, long-lasting impacts on both physical and mental health. 
Research from the University of Melbourne found people who experience racial discrimination are more likely to experience emotional difficulties, suicidal ideation, withdraw from social activities and turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. 
This is because experiencing racism can cause trauma – the root of many mental illnesses, mental health and health issues.
A US-based research team recently used MRI scans to examine the brain activity of Black women. Women who had experienced racial discrimination displayed overstimulation in the parts of the brain that watch out for and respond to threats. In fact, these brain activity levels were even higher than would be expected for other traumatic experiences. 
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Having the brain constantly operating in this state of hypervigilance puts Black, Indigenous and people of colour at greater risk of mental health disorders.
For First Nations people the statistics are particularly grim, with the suicide rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people two times higher than the rest of the population. 
Even without the research and statistics, it’s not difficult to understand how extreme acts of racially motivated abuse and aggression can be traumatic for people. 
For acts of casual racism and microaggressions, the impact is less obvious, but just as insidious.

Racism seeps into you

Writer and actor Nakkiah Lui was one of the many voices to call-in Rowe over her decision to trivialise Pauline Hanson’s racism. A week later, Lui articulated how years of bullying and casual racism can have a long-lasting effect.
The full Twitter thread is well worth a read, but at its core Lui pinpoints how the “racist rhetoric that I've experienced my entire life… makes you feel WORTHLESS. It makes you feel so utterly less than, like something is wrong with YOU.”
Lui writes that feelings of “worthlessness, of fear, the anxiety that comes with it and then the depression that follows” she endured as an Aboriginal kid in white Australia hit again when confronting Rowe this September.
The overlap between racism, bullying and mental health couldn’t be clearer.
As an Asian woman, my own experience is both distinct and similar. It is triggering to see the same jokes, comments, judgement and shame that coloured my childhood still openly used as entertainment decades later.
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I work in media – the same industry as Rowe, Molan and Love. The three-fold reminder that peers, mentors and leaders in my work environment might consider me less skilled, valid or important due to my race was overwhelming. It intensified the depression I’m already working through with a psychologist. 
Even writing this story, I can feel my heart racing. My chest is tight and jaw clenched. These symptoms of anxiety are directly triggered by retracing these incidents for this very article.
Some might argue that a stranger, let alone a celebrity I’ve never met, should not be responsible for my mental health. That’s true – I’m ultimately responsible for my own wellbeing.
But what happens when that celebrity is helping to shape the national conversation around mental health, held up as an example that others should follow? As champions of a noble cause, their behaviour is seen as a green light by the public – it’s ok to replicate because these are nice women, good people.
So, are advocacy and support organisations asking the right people to represent them?
It’s not really about Molan, Love or Rowe as individuals. They are stand-ins for the bigger question we need to answer: by putting white, privileged women at the centre of mental health discussions, are we sidelining those who need the most support?

Who do celebrity ambassadors represent?

It is undoubtedly a good thing that influential people are using their platforms to talk about mental health. Ambassadors can reduce stigma and expand conversations; the increased demand for support services has been driven in part by their vulnerability and openness. 
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But it also means that we remain mostly focused on helping people who look like these ambassadors – wealthy, white women. 
Australia’s well-documented lack of media diversity is contributing to this problem.
When mental health organisations are considering which personalities and celebrities can help grow their reach, who do they have to choose from? A list of names able to thrive in an industry rife with racism, ableism, and near impossible to break into without wealth. 
If the wonderful diversity of our population isn’t reflected in the media landscape, then it’s a mistake to assume ambassadors chosen from this field will help reach anyone outside the mainstream. 
Given the long-lasting impact that casual racism can have, advocacy and support organisations need to think hard about who they exist to serve when deciding who will represent them. What qualifies someone to be held up as an example? Who will they resonate with, and does their audience need your help the most?
We can answer at least one of those questions: people at the highest risk of experiencing mental illness and poor mental health are those within marginalised communities, including CALD communities, disabled people, the LGBTQIA+ community, those experiencing poverty or homelessness. They can face heavy stigma, cost and cultural barriers to accessing professional help.
It’s not just that the majority of Australian celebrities don’t appeal to us, but they often represent those who have harmed us. Mental health organisations need to be just as selective about their representatives as domestic and sexual violence advocacy groups. Having personal experience with bullying, depression or anxiety isn’t enough. If we want to ensure that everyone in this country is part of change-making conversations about mental health, it’s going to take more than a winning smile and a relatable story.

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