Over the last decade, the fight to rid the stigma around mental health struggles has seen massive strides. Therapy is more widely used than ever, diagnoses are on the rise, and workplaces are recognising the necessity of mental health days. And we’d be remiss to not acknowledge that some of that progress has been moved along significantly by influential people who have been brave in sharing their personal experiences with depression and anxiety. But when it comes to celebrities, why are we reluctant to empathise?
Recently, Bella Hadid made headlines when she shared a lengthy post to her 47 million+ Instagram followers, detailing her battles with her mental health.
With an interview clip, the 25-year-old included a quote from Willow Smith that read:
“All humans are different, every single human has something so special and unique to offer. And people forget that everyone is basically feeling the same way: lost, confused, not really sure why they’re here. That anxiety, like, everyone is feeling that — and trying to cover it up in some way… We’re gonna come together in our flaws. In our insecurities, in our joy, in our happiness, and accept it all as beautiful and natural.”
She followed the clip with a carousel of images of her teary-eyed and puffy-faced, writing, “This is pretty much my everyday, every night... For a few years now.”
She then went on to reach out to those who may be going through similar experiences.
“Social media is not real,” she began. “For anyone struggling, please remember that. Sometimes all you’ve gotta hear is that you’re not alone. So from me to you, you’re not alone. I love you, I see you, and I hear you. Self help and mental illness/chemical imbalance is not linear and it is almost like a flowing rollercoaster of obstacles… it has its ups and downs, and side to sides. But I want you to know, there is always light at the end of the tunnel, and the rollercoaster always comes to a complete stop at some point. There is always room for it to start up again, but for me it’s always been nice to know that even if it’s a few days, weeks, or months, it does get better, to some extent, even for a moment.
“It took me a long time to get that in my mind, but I’ve had enough breakdowns and burnouts to know this: if you work hard enough on yourself, spending time alone to understand your traumas, triggers, joys, and routine, you will always be able to understand or learn more about your own pain and how to handle it. Which is all that you can ask of yourself. Anyways. Not sure why, but it feels harder and harder to not share my truth on here. Thank you for seeing me and thank you for listening. I love you.”
While the comments showed an outpouring of love from friends and followers, the post wasn't as widely-supported or covered as some of her glossier posts.
As a viewer, there are a lot of mixed feelings around celebrities who get real about their mental health struggles. On the one hand, we’re inclined to feel empathy for anyone going through trying times, and celebrities are clearly not immune to grief, anxiety and every other emotion weaved into the human experience. But on the other hand, there is an instinct, however unconscious, to question the substance of struggles.
We demand gratitude for what they have. For what we don’t. But the hesitation to trust these as non-performative displays isn't necessarily done in malice.
Even if we remove the public nature of their lives, the same conflicting feelings can come over us with friends or acquaintances that we view as possessing certain advantages in life. And it’s only natural. After all, most of us have plenty to be thankful for. But when does checking your privilege err dangerously on the side of mental health dismissal? We count our blessings and always cushion our complaints with all that we have, but is it right to conflate advantage with happiness? As Nancy Sokarno, a psychologist at Lysn, tells us, that the concept of celebrities is so unnatural that our brains aren't quite wired to quite accept them as is.
“Celebrities often have a public persona that they are ‘perfect’, with their impeccable style, perfect teeth and airbrushed photos. Therefore, we often hold celebrities up on a pedestal,” she says. “So often when it comes to them opening up about their mental health struggles, we tend to question it because our own minds have decided that they couldn’t possibly be dealing with issues like the rest of us!”
But just as you don’t have to be a beautiful millionaire to be happy, you don’t need to be devoid of all conventional assets to be unhappy. As Hadid attested to in her post, depression isn't necessarily a constant state, either, but rather, something that ebbs and flows.
“There’s also an element of us knowing that deep down their perfectly crafted public persona isn’t really true (and at times this is revealed) so we don’t tend to trust what celebrities are telling us,” explains Sokarno.
As much as we gravitate towards the personas public figures craft, we're well aware that, sometimes, vulnerability is harnessed as a tool. Relatability can be a social currency in the saturated world of celebrity. Particularly when brand deals make up a significant portion of their incomes, it’s hard to ignore the commodification of the ‘just like you’ persona, where celebrities and influencers alike make a personal brand out of being endearingly imperfect.
So much psychology and research goes into marketing people, so if your instinct is to second guess anything and everything on social media, you're not a bad person, or dead inside. But it is important to give people, even 25-year-old millionaires, the space to not be ok.
“I think for some celebrities, they get to a point where they don’t want to be seen as ‘perfect’ because with that comes a lot of high expectations. The reality is, no one is perfect, and that’s what makes us human.”
So, why does someone like Bella Hadid posting selfies of her crying rub some the wrong way? According to Sokarno, it's normal to experience conflicting feelings of empathy and scepticism. “As humans, we are attracted to any information that affirms our identity and aligns with our worldview, whereas we prefer to avoid or reject information that challenges or threatens us.”
“On one side of the coin, other people’s woes can make them seem more relatable to us and therefore we can feel a little better in that sense. Then on the flip side, if we’re thinking back about how we put someone up on a pedestal and then they don’t live up to those unrealistic expectations we can feel worse,” says Sokarno.
Maybe then, the idea that someone could have so much, a lot which we find ourselves aspiring to, and still be unhappy, is confronting in a way that causes us to become defensive. Why? Because it challenges the connection between accumulation and emotional fulfilment that we are taught exists. When in reality, the old adage of 'money can't buy happiness' generally checks out.
Scepticism isn't necessarily a problem, but it can be when it manifests in undue anger. But no one, including celebrities and the rich and powerful, needs to be happy all the time, and it's important to remember that depression is not the absence of gratitude.
As far as handling this in our lives, Sokarno is confident that transparency and self-reflection are key.
“Everyone is human like us, and therefore deserving of some compassion as well. Celebrities, or people with privilege, can help us to understand our own mental health struggles and show that we are all affected by these issues in our lifetime.”
And besides, perhaps the positives of people such as Hadid opening up about her ongoing struggles, and reminding us that we all get the same swollen face when we cry, inspiring those to come forward with their own issues, far outweigh the cons. “We need people to advocate change, spread the word and help reduce the stigma when it comes to mental health,” says Sokarno.
“If you find it hard listening to someone in a privileged position talk about their struggles, remember that those people are human too. Struggles can affect all of us, no matter what our status, and every single person can be affected by mental health issues.
What's also worth recognising is that our initial responses to information aren’t concrete, and aren’t necessarily reflective of our feelings on mental health as a whole. You’re not a bad person if you question someone’s problems, but it could be worth channelling the criticism elsewhere.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety, please contact Samaritans on 116 123.