On the "Celebrity Coming Out" of Mental Illness

Why high profile people reduce stigma.

Posted Feb 01, 2012

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

  1. Don't judge the celebrity who comes out with his or her mental illness disclosure as being a means to garner media attention. Many high profile individuals genuinely care about reducing stigma by sharing their story.
  2. If you're someone who needs to conceal your mental illness, give yourself permission to do so. Allow others to do the work to shatter the myths stigma perpetuates in society. You may need to take a different path in living with your mental illness.
  3. If you are considering disclosing your mental illness, bear in mind that moving from "concealment" to "selective" or "indiscriminant" disclosure can be a bumpy road.
  4. Broaden your group identity by joining a grassroots organization like BringChange2Mind (United States), the StigmaBusters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (United States), Sane (Australia), or Shift (United Kingdom), for example. These organizations are welcoming and informative, and work tirelessly to advocate for mental illness.
  5. Children and teens are often less inhibited about their personal information and are at a higher risk for experiencing stigma as a result. Help them understand the pros and cons about sharing their personal narrative. Engage in role-play and educate them about their mental illness.
  6. If the issue of stigma wedges itself profoundly into your life, consider seeking professional, individual, or group psychotherapy to assist you. Remember, there's no shame in living with a mental illness. 


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.

Perry, B. L. et al. (2007).Comparison of public attributions, attitudes, and stigma in regard to depression among children and adults. Psychiatric Services, 58: 632-635.

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.