First published by Independent Voices, 12th September 2016
In Britain, we are facing an unprecedented crisis in mental health, particularly among young people. The charity Mind estimates that one in four people will suffer from a mental health condition each year.
Lady Gaga is the latest celebrity to speak openly about her struggle with anxiety and depression, issues she says are exacerbated by her huge fame and the pressures of living life in the public eye. Her publicist has confirmed that she takes medication to manage these conditions.
It has given the tabloids yet another chance to gleefully publish spreads of pictures of the pop star – captioned with mentions of her “revealing outfits”, because there’s nothing we like more than to see the vulnerability of successful women coupled with their casual sexualisation.
It’s so easy to feel strange or freakish if you suffer from mental illness. There’s still a great deal of stigma associated with many conditions, particularly the more ‘unacceptable’ illnesses such as borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. It can often be helpful to see that even the most successful, wealthy, famous and beautiful among us face mental illness too, because it removes a certain shame from being a sufferer.
However, the importance of celebrities opening up about their mental wellbeing should not be overstated. It is equally important that those we know and love in our daily lives are open and transparent about mental health. Friends and family are much closer and more involved in our lives than any celebrity, their efforts to be encouraging or offer support are far more tangible. Knowing that celebrities like Lady Gaga share their conditions does not necessarily help sufferers to heal or manage their own illness; the love, support and honesty of those in our daily lives can help to do so.
Lady Gaga is also quoted as saying that she wouldn’t “encourage young people to take anti-depressants or mood stabilizers” – a problematic statement that places prescribed medication in the same category of recreational drugs. Obviously it’s irresponsible to encourage young fans to indulge in casual cocaine or heroin abuse, but anti-depressants, if prescribed by a GP, can be helpful.
The most useful thing for Lady Gaga to do would be to encourage her young fans to seek professional help if they’re suffering from mental health problems, not apologise for or distance herself from psychoactive medication, or express any view on whether another person could benefit from it. If you need it and you’re prescribed it, take it – and take it without shame.
If we’re serious about tackling mental health in Britain, we cannot rely on celebrities to speak about the issue to our young people. Parents must be provided with resources to help their children understand depression and anxiety, an approach championed by Young Minds, a charity that specialises in helping parents and young people. Information on mental wellbeing should be widely available in schools and made part of the curriculum.
Though public spending is being cut back, it is absolutely essential that oversubscribed and inadequate mental health services are overhauled and improved. Young people can spend six to 12 months on waiting lists for treatment, when their mental health is incredibly fragile and their lives feel worthless. Many people are regulars in A&E just because they know that, by turning up, they will be seen and heard by someone in the medical profession. Others are held in police cells due to lack of available beds.
There are good economic reasons for acting: if the crisis in mental health is not addressed, the economy will continue to lose millions of working days every year, pressure on the NHS will increase (including due to drug addiction, excessive eating and alcohol dependency as manifestations of untreated mental illness), and we will become an increasingly unhappy nation.
I’m pleased that Lady Gaga feels comfortable enough to speak out about her illness, and it’s essential that the stigma around mental health is eradicated through openness and honestly. However, we must not imbue these celebrity admissions with more power than they really possess. Speaking out does not, by itself, solve the mental health crisis.
There’s so much work to be done around mental wellbeing in Britain. We must all roll up our sleeves and work for the acceptance and recovery of those around us, not sit back and wait for another famous face to tell their story.