Why We Need to Stop Speculating About Other People's Mental Health, According to Therapists
Plus, how to foster constructive, helpful discussions about mental health.
Conversations about mental health are definitely less taboo than they used to be, due in large part to celebrities. Demi Lovato, Emma Stone, Taraji P. Henson, Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, Halsey, and countless other public figures intentionally use their platform to open up about mental health and encourage these discussions.
And yet, when we see celebrities publicly struggling with their mental health — Kanye West, Amanda Bynes, Britney Spears — the conversation tends to shift from a place of constructive, objective discussion, to speculative gossip. And sure, at first, this speculation might seem innocent, lighthearted, even entertaining to some. Ultimately, though, it isn't productive or helpful. In fact, it's damaging.
"Some of the [mental health] symptoms and behaviors that we've seen from celebrities are things that regular people experience as well," says Brittany A. Johnson, a licensed mental health counselor in New Albany, Indiana, and author of Get Out of Your Own Way: 21 Days to Stop Self Sabotage. "So when we make fun of celebrities for dealing with these issues, we are also making fun of everyday people who live with mental illness," inevitably shaming and belittling all the experiences that can come with it.
That shame, in turn, can make people (read: you, me — us) reluctant to get help. Case in point: One in five U.S. adults experiences mental illness every year, and less than half receive the treatment they need, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Treatment rates are even more dismal among BIPOC with mental illness, of whom only about one-third receive help, according to NAMI. (Related: Accessible and Supportive Resources for Black Womxn)
"When discussing mental health in general, many people picture extreme examples," says Oludara Adeeyo, an associate clinical social worker and psychotherapist in Los Angeles. Think: a photo of Britney Spears shaving her head, or a story about Amanda Bynes trying to start a fire in a residential neighborhood. People don't necessarily think of the "more common examples, such as someone who's lost their job because of the COVID-19 pandemic and are now home and not working and experiencing symptoms of depression as a result," explains Adeeyo. "If these more common (and often more relatable) situations were discussed more often in an effort to normalize mental health access, attitudes toward professional help would likely improve."
On one hand, seeing others, especially celebrities, dealing with mental health issues can help you better understand the overall experience of mental illness. And when someone has been publicly open about their mental health, it can be appropriate to relate to their experience and talk about it. (Related: How Celebrity Social Media Affects Your Mental Health and Body Image)
However, it's imperative that these discussions are constructive, rather than judgmental or speculative.
Put another way: Don't attempt to "diagnose" someone or define them by their condition, says Johnson. "It needs to be said that it's inappropriate to diagnose someone based on media reports," she explains. "Diagnosing someone is a very intimate and potentially lengthy process that involves meeting with them more than once and learning their personal and family history. Looking at someone's behavior on a given day does not give you enough information to understand the whole picture."
Not to mention, there's a whole lot more to mental illness than just diagnosis, notes Adeeyo. Diagnosis is a starting point for ongoing therapy and treatment — things we often don't see in someone's daily public persona.
"People are not their mental health," continues Adeeyo. If, for example, you see a video of Kanye West (who has been open about his bipolar diagnosis) and someone — not West himself, or even someone close to him — says it seems like he's having a "manic episode" related to his bipolar disorder in said video, the truth is, it's simply not their place to make that judgment. (Related: 4 Essential Mental Health Lessons Everyone Should Know, According to a Psychologist)
"When you see someone and say, 'Oh they're a bipolar,' or 'they're in a manic episode,' you're labeling that person and their [supposed] illness, which ultimately isn't helpful for decreasing negative stereotypes and stigma," explains Adeeyo. "If you see someone who's going through mental health issues and you're judging or making fun of them, you can only imagine how they're seeing themselves and how low they must feel."
Plus, perpetuating stereotypes about mental health further fosters issues for BIPOC folks with mental illness.
A gap in research about mental health issues among minority groups makes stereotyping these conditions especially problematic and harmful when the subject is a BIPOC, says Johnson.
Consider the stereotype of the "angry Black woman", for example — a stereotype that's been linked to negative impacts on Black women's mental health, says Johnson. Perpetuating this idea can make Black women feel as if they have to always be "perfect" and have the "correct" reaction to normal and even abnormal situations, she explains. Carrying that pressure can increase symptoms of anxiety and depression, particularly if the individual feels they can't express their emotions and be themselves, says Johnson.
"There is also a piece of this equation that goes into historic and systemic racism — if a Black person exhibits negative behavior, the entire culture is tied to it, which is rarely the case for white or non-Black people," adds Johnson. Similarly, in the context of school shootings involving a white perpetrator, "many people are often quick to say, 'That person had a mental health issue,' but then are quick to blame the entire culture if it's a person of color (often specifically a Black or Muslim person)," explains Johnson. "When you're seeing a celebrity of color who has a mental health issue, existing stereotypes and ways of thinking for sure make it harder for the Black community." (Related: How Racism Affects Your Mental Health)
Plus, "the idea that Black people are really strong people given our history and all the oppression we've gone through," is another stereotype that disproportionately affects Black people struggling with mental health, says Adeeyo. "Now that we've supposedly overcome that, the attitude is that we can pull ourselves up and we don't need to seek outside help. But that's just not true and not a healthy way to think." And perpetuating this notion "could lead to someone continuing to make harmful decisions (such as drinking or doing drugs in excess) versus getting necessary professional help," explains Adeeyo.
So, what can you do to foster constructive, helpful discussions about mental health?
First and foremost, Johnson recommends approaching any conversation about mental health with empathy in mind, whether you're discussing a celebrity, someone you know — anyone. Rather than suggest someone is choosing to be in their situation, make a conscious effort to use supportive language that speaks to their experience, she says. Examples include, "How can I support this person?" or "It looks like they're having a rough time," which can set the tone for an open, judgment-free conversation.
If race comes up in a discussion about someone's mental health, make sure you're not using it as a reason to exclude someone or intensify their behaviors, adds Johnson. "We need to normalize that mental health does not care about your skin color or your financial or socioeconomic status," she explains. "Mental health conditions can impact any and everyone. The more we talk about our experiences with the way our moods change throughout the days and the weeks and the months, that will help the conversation and make us feel more comfortable with sharing experiences." (Related: The Stigma Around Psychiatric Medication Is Forcing People to Suffer In Silence)
The bottom line: "The more we see that people with mental illnesses are still human, the farther we'll move in a positive direction," says Johnson.