Do celebrity breakdowns normalize mental illness?
On the one hand I think it's great if the exposure diminishes the stigma associated with psychiatric problems, but on the other, I fear it may contribute to an already pervasive problem. Drug companies have contributed to a zero tolerance policy for unhappiness in our culture. A little bit of sadness is normal I think, and antidepressants make you fat.
In a world where Lindsay Lohan gets million-dollar offers to come out as gay, and pregnant 17-year-old Disney star Jamie Lynn Spears spikes magazine sales, the latest taboo to hit publicist gold is mental illness.
Kirsten Dunst is one of a string of celebs to put their inner struggles in the spotlight, saying last week that she had been in rehab - not for the drug habit expected of stars such as singer Amy Winehouse - but for depression.
"Depression," the actress says, "is pretty serious and should not be gossiped about."
Gossip is unavoidable, though, with bloggers such as Perez Hilton following celebrities' every move. "Is crazy the new black?" he quipped recently.
The statement from Ms. Dunst followed similar confessions from Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz, who plugged the band's new album by disclosing his depression; from Grey's Anatomy star Justin Chambers, who opened up about his sleep disorder in People magazine after checking into the same Los Angeles psychiatric ward as Britney Spears; and Jackass's Steve-O, who blogged about being bipolar.
Whether it's a bid for publicity or a genuine desire to raise awareness, more celebrities are airing their psychological struggles in the media - prompting some mental health advocates to wonder if mental illness is finally coming out of the closet.
To have stars actively discuss their depression and anxiety disorders is a far cry from the days when celebrities would disappear for months and offer vague explanations such as "mental exhaustion," says Barron Lerner, Columbia University associate professor and author of the 2006 book When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine.
One of the reasons is the extreme focus that tabloids and bloggers train on celebrity lives, Dr. Lerner said. Even if stars aren't forthcoming, chances are their struggles will end up on TMZ.com. Another is that while mental illness was once seen as a career killer, it is now increasingly viewed as a way to garner sympathy and support.
"All of this is very scripted," Dr. Lerner said. "It's better for your career, I suppose, to be depressed rather than a substance abuser." Some bloggers questioned whether Ms. Dunst was using depression to distract people from an addiction problem.
Still, after so many years of trying to lift the veil surrounding mental illness, other advocates say any kind of media exposure is welcome because it promotes discussion about an issue that affects 20 per cent of Canadians during their lifetime, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.
"Bad news is good news, really, when it comes to mental illness," said Kismet Baun, spokeswoman for the CMHA's Ontario branch. "I don't know what the motivation is behind it, but if it brings it out into the mainstream and makes it less taboo, then we're all for it."