One out of five Americans will experience mental illness in their lifetime, however, only a fraction will consider seeking treatment. Though evidence-based research shows that mental illness is a real medical disorder, stigma is on the rise instead of on the decline.
Dogged adherence to mistaken beliefs, misinformation, and ignorance makes mental illness one of the most stigmatized conditions in the world. Furthermore, studies show that the more severe a mental illness diagnosis, the more debilitating the stigma.
When Celebrities Come Out
High profile people who disclose their experiences with mental illness bring a positive light to health and wellness. Research supports this, with data showing how positive stories result in more people seeking help as a result of a celebrity's disclosure. Stigma research has shown that the telling of positive stories about living with mental illness significantly reduces the myths of mental illness. When the public learns about a person who lives with a clinical disorder, manages it well and experiences a rewarding life, stigma is reduced.
Issue Regarding Disclosure
Addressing stigma is not always an easy thing to do if you're a non-celebrity. For many, fighting stigma is not an option. Fear of losing a job, friends, and social status are very real things. For this reason, concealment can be a constructive strategy. Avoiding stigma in this vein should not be misconstrued as embarrassment, but rather as a means of protection against the misconceptions and intolerance that wait in the wings for a person with mental illness.
But this is not the case when a celebrity self-discloses. In fact, the opposite happens. Celebrities who self-disclose are often applauded for their honesty, and even find their status heightened as a result. Though it's easier for celebrities to talk openly about mental illness than say a teacher, a pilot or a soldier - their disclosure is significant - which in turn, helps those living with mental illness feel validated and less ashamed. When celebrities reveal their struggles and successes with mental illness, they create a "memoirs are mirrors" effect. Essentially, their disclosure enables the general public to reflect on their own personal experiences with mental illness.
Tips Regarding Disclosure
Corrigan, P. (2004). Stigmatizing attitudes about mental illness and allocation of resources to mental health services. Community Mental Health Journal, 40(4), 297-307.
Gosselin, A. (2011). Memoirs as mirrors. Narrative, 19(1) 133-148.
Ilek, M. et. al. (2011) Protecting self-esteem from stigma: A test of different strategies for coping with the stigma of mental illness. International Journal of Social Psychiatry.
Rusch, N. et. al. (2011) Knowledge and attitudes as predictors of intentions to seek help for and disclose a mental illness. Psychiatric Services, 62:675-678.
Editorial Note: Dr. Deborah Serani is the author of Living with Depression" by Rowman and Littlefield.