I am a guy who struggles with anxiety and depression. I’m also a journalist who occasionally writes about mental health. So I notice when public figures, particularly men, speak openly about mental health and mental illness.
I noticed when novelist Donald Antrim delivered a commencement address in 2015 about a depressive episode so powerful that it left him incapacitated in a hospital.
I listened when Lil Wayne rapped about a suicide attempt on the brilliant Solange track “Mad” in 2016.
I watched as Passion Pit singer Michael Angelakos livestreamed receiving an electromagnetic treatment session for bipolar disorder in 2017.
These moments were remarkable for their bravery, their matter-of-factness and their stigma-smashing power. Still, they seemed relatively rare and far between.
But now something has changed. An extraordinary number of high-profile men have opened up about their mental health during the first half of 2018.
In February, actor Brendan Fraser spoke frankly with GQ about the mental health fallout he experienced after being sexually assaulted in 2003 following an industry luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel. That same week, actor, author and comedian Michael Ian Black wrote a New York Times op-ed about masculinity and mental health in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting. “America’s boys are broken,” Black warned. “And it’s killing us.”
When it comes to influencing attitudes about mental illness, celebrities really do wield outsized power ― and these brave men are exercising theirs admirably.
The next month, NBA player Kevin Love wrote a widely shared Players Tribune piece about his battles with anxiety. This prompted “Today” show regular Carson Daly to talk about his own anxiety, telling viewers, “I had a hard time breathing. I was terrified for no apparent reason. … You feel like you’re dying.” And a Minnesota-based sportswriter published a column titled “Major Depression Spares No One — Even Sportswriters Like Me.”
Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who had previously revealed that he’s weathered “at least half a dozen depression spells,” said in an April interview that he now knows “it’s OK to not be OK.” Also that month, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson tweeted, “depression never discriminates … us dudes have a tendency to keep it in. You’re not alone.”
Just two weeks ago in May, actor Ryan Reynolds told The New York Times that anxiety has taken him to the “depths of the darker end of the spectrum.” A week later, actor Terry Crews said masculinity can be a “cult” and expanded on society’s particularly rigid expectations for black men: “The only time you’re really recognized as being victimized is when you’re dead.”
Now, I’m admittedly not a licensed therapist or a researcher with a list of peer-reviewed papers. But you don’t need a Ph.D. to note a few important things going on here.
The first is that, with all these famous men speaking candidly about their mental health, we are witnessing a major cultural shift. Certainly, there are still millions of old-school men in this country who believe in stoicism, silent suffering and “being a man about” (read: never mentioning or acknowledging) their emotions and mental struggles. But in the last few months, we’ve seen a diverse group of male celebrities dismiss that paradigm and forge a new one based on honesty, vulnerability and speaking out instead of “sucking it up.”
Every time a celebrity shares an unguarded story about his mental health struggles, he helps shrink the pervasive and toxic stigma surrounding depression and anxiety.
And this is a big deal. Every time a celebrity shares an unguarded story about his mental health struggles, he helps shrink the pervasive and toxic stigma surrounding depression and anxiety. People wrestling with these issues have enough on their minds without the additional fear of how others will react to their anguish.
By stepping forward, these high-profile men have delivered a massive blow to the dangerous idea that mental health is a reflection of a person’s character. Or strength. Or worth.
They’ve also helped debunk the powerful misconception that mental health issues prevent a person from being successful, which clearly isn’t true, considering the heights that Kevin Love and Dwayne Johnson have achieved. And they’ve shown that the inverse is also true: Professional success will not erase a person’s mental health issues. Both are important lessons.
Us magazine has been lightheartedly proclaiming for years that stars are “just like us!” But when it comes to influencing attitudes about mental illness, celebrities really do wield outsized power ― and these brave men are exercising theirs admirably. With their op-eds, tweets and interviews, they have also left gifts for struggling souls to find in a dark hour.
Just as you might look into your medicine cabinet for a Band-Aid or Advil if you’ve scraped a knee or twisted an ankle, the person in a depressive spell or panic cycle goes searching online for words of comfort and insight. I’ve certainly done this myself, and I’ve heard from readers who have as well. Thanks to these guys, we have new stories to give us comfort and offer solidarity in those difficult times. Words can be medicinal for individuals in mental crisis, and these men have expanded our public library of psychological healing.
But as we mark this moment, we shouldn’t conflate it with an end to our country’s current mental health problems. As I noted in a report for Vice last year, men experience higher rates of suicide, drug use and alcohol dependence than women and also exhibit lower mental health literacy and a greater hesitancy to seek help. As USA Today reported, even for those ready to get help, financial and logistical obstacles often stand in the way.
The words of several famous men aren’t strong enough to lower the cost of an hourlong therapy session. Or restore the $5 billion in mental health services cut at the state level between 2009 and 2012. Or create the more than 100,000 mental health hospital beds the nation needs. At all levels of society, we must work aggressively to remove roadblocks for people seeking mental health care.
These high-profile men have delivered a massive blow to the dangerous idea that mental health is a reflection of a person’s character. Or strength. Or worth.
My hope is the testimonials we’ve heard from male celebrities so far this year don’t mark a high point but instead end up being a step toward even greater levels of awareness, encouragement and destigmatization. I offer a reminder that anyone ― parents, siblings, cousins, teammates, friends, teachers, co-workers and bosses ― can confront mental health stigma and ignorance. Anyone can encourage emotional openness and avoid conflating silence with strength or tears with weakness. Anyone can refer a friend to facts about depression, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or the National Institute of Mental Health’s resources.
We’ve had to absorb an array of bad news so far this year, from advancing climate change, to mass shootings, to fresh Me Too horror stories, to a country that feels like it’s ripping apart at the seams. But in the midst of all this, a genuinely inspiring and uplifting story has emerged in which the men from our movie screens, bookshelves and playing fields have told us, to quote Love’s essay, “You’re not weird or different for sharing what you’re going through.”
This year, we’ve moved a bit closer to the day when men can discuss their depression or anxiety with the same lack of shame as they describe a broken arm or a stomachache. You might even say it’s become cool for us to talk about our mental health.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources. And visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.
Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. He was the news editor and staff writer at the alt-weekly Providence Phoenix until the newspaper closed in 2014. Since then, he has contributed to The Atlantic, Salon, Vice and Boston Magazine, among other outlets.
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