Celebrity Advocates: Does Being Famous Help Fight Stigma?


By Margaret Everett, Member of the Anti-Stigma Project | September, 2018

Celebrity endorsements help bring the stigma conversation to the table, but do they really impact the “nearly one in five U.S. adults” who live with mental illness and addiction every day? An article in Psychology Today found that, “Stigma research has shown that the telling of positive stories about living with mental illness significantly reduces the myths of mental illness” and that when the general public learns about “ a person who lives with a clinical disorder, manages it well, and experiences a rewarding life, stigma is reduced.” The research shows that celebrities can be influential and the general public can be deeply impacted by their stories.

Famous people like actor Ryan Reynolds, football player Brandon Marshall, TV personality Howie Mandel, and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps are speaking out about their experiences and have demonstrated that all layers of social strata, even Hollywood actors and football stars, can struggle with mental illness and addiction. Ranging from OCD and anxiety to substance abuse and depression, the experiences of these celebrities can be eye-opening. Actress Kristen Bell believes that, “anyone can be affected, despite their level of success or their place on the food chain.”

In recent years, because of social media platforms, it is now easier than ever for celebrities to communicate directly with the public. There has been a push for the well-known names of Hollywood to share their stories in order to connect with their fans and de-stigmatize mental health disorders. The celebrities you see every day are, one by one, sharing with the world about their struggles, both past and present, in an effort to bring awareness. One celebrity-endorsed campaign called #MyYoungerSelf is designed to do just that allowing actors, athletes, social influencers and businesspeople to “send messages of hope about their experience growing up with a mental health or learning disorder.” The campaign also encourages the general public to reach out with their own stories and messages. One of the many celebrities associated with the campaign is actress Kristen Bell, who wrote in an essay for Time, “There is such an extreme stigma about mental health issues ... It’s a knee-jerk reaction to judge people when they’re vulnerable. But there’s nothing weak about struggling with mental illness.”

Demi Lovato, child actor and pop music star, is no stranger to the stigma of both mental illness and addiction after her recent hospitalization for a heroin overdose. Directly afterward, much of the media coverage was flooded with stigmatizing language about her patterns of drug addiction over the years and her diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Demi Lovato has used her resources and influence to create a campaign and website called “Be Vocal” that encourages people to speak up about their own mental health experiences and provides support to those who need it. “There’s a lack of compassion for people who have mental illnesses and there’s a lot of judgment” she told Huffington Post when asked why she started “Be Vocal”. Stars like Lovato and Michael Phelps have access to large fan bases that idolize and look up to them, which can have a positive impact on those experiencing similar problems and encourage them to seek help. Phelps said in an interview, “Somebody told me yesterday about his daughter going through a very, very deep depression and not really wanting to be alive. She read stories about me opening up. He told me how much that helped her.” Public and media response to celebrity experiences show how far our society has come with the battle against these distorted perceptions.

According to another anti-stigma campaign in California called “Each Mind Matters”, a shift in Hollywood and celebrity culture around mental health stigma, “seems to be occurring as more and more celebrities are coming out and talking about their own mental health challenges.” The idea of celebrities providing resources and sharing coping methods can be very influential in encouraging people to reach out for help. It seems that the power of celebrity outreach can plant an important seed of self-care and self-awareness for the average fan or spectator. In fact, 45% of US adults who took a survey on celebrity endorsements, believed that celebrities can make either a large or some positive difference on issues they are promoting. Research into celebrity endorsements and nonprofits found that “celebrities can persuade through their expertise, trustworthiness, or attractiveness, and that these effects are more likely in situations where consumers have low interest and knowledge.”

The actress Glenn Close has spent her career playing strong and powerful women, but has also had family struggles with mental illness.  She created an anti-stigma campaign called Bring Change to Mind, with almost 93,000 followers on Facebook, that provides tips on how to choose words wisely and information about mental illness by linking helpful tools and resources to their website. Fans of the campaign are saying things like “thank you for fighting for us all and educating people about mental illness” and “I am so glad that I found this Facebook page and website.” She used her influence to spread awareness not only to help her own family, but also to create more honest conversation about mental illness and the impact of stigma in recovery.

Another facet of celebrity stigma outreach is centered around the deeply saddening topic of death by suicide, like those of TV personality and chef Anthony Bourdain, designer Kate Spade, singer Amy Winehouse and many more. High profile deaths like these generate a lot of attention and hold the potential for changing the dialogue around suicide and mental illness. The discussion can be a catalyst for the mental health and addiction community to provide information and help those experiencing stigma to speak out. In the wake of these tragedies, organizations like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention made an effort to discuss suicide prevention and stigma on news outlets like CNN, as well as provide information on social media about ways to support those dealing with suicidal ideation and those dealing with the loss of a loved one by suicide.  

Celebrities sharing their stories about mental illness and addiction with the public is a reminder that no one is exempt from mental illness, regardless of fame and name recognition. Actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson addressed his own depression recently in an interview saying, “We have to help them through it and remind them they are not alone” and received overwhelming support from fans after sharing his story. The positive response to their stories is important for stigma outreach along with other public awareness movements like #MeToo.

Critics of those speaking out argue that because celebrities are not representative of the average population of people with behavioral health issues, they give a misleading impression of what the experience is really like. And yet, according to Child Mind Institute president Dr. Harold Koplewicz, "We know that when famous people basically stand up and say, 'I suffered and I got better,' it has a dramatic effect on all of us, but particularly on young people." Given the stigma around mental illness and addiction, celebrity voices provide a great foundation for reducing stigma with their public actions, leading the way for others to share their stories and receive respect and compassion in response. Celebrity-associated campaigns like #MyYoungerSelf are very successful examples of how celebrity testimonials can pave the way for everyday people to share their stories and become the most important voices of the movement.  All of us - celebrity, teacher, parent, and coworker can play a critical role in addressing the distorted perceptions that too many Americans still hold about persons living with behavioral health challenges.