We're All Mad Here: Mental Illness and Celebrities

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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

Every week, it seems like I open Twitter to a new celebrity scandal. My feed blows up with speculative tweets and links to the same four gossip sites, over and over and over again. And sometimes, these scandals are about a very specific phenomenon: The celebrity breakdown. Few things appear to spark more excitement than a celebrity who appears to be struggling with the symptoms of mental illness.

Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Courtney Love, Amy Winehouse. All four of these women, to pick some fairly random and high-profile examples, have been hounded by the media, sometimes while dealing with very personal issues, and even death didn’t stop the speculation and gossip mongery. It’s not just that the media eagerly presents information about their private lives and the public happily demands and consumes it, but that, often, this consumption takes the form of reveling in the expressions of mental illness and mocking celebrities with mental health conditions and substance abuse problems.

Musician Amy Winehouse

Celebrity breakdown stories tend to focus specifically on women, and are often presented in a way to make the consumer understand that the celebrity is weak, cracking under the pressure, simply can’t take the rough environment of Hollywood. Surely, the media assures itself, it isn’t playing any role in the mental distress of its subjects. Women who are obviously struggling with emotional turmoil must find it extremely hard to deal with it in a productive way when every move is scrutinized. You can’t even go to the hairdresser without being pursued by paparazzi when they smell blood—or an exclusive—in the water.

There’s an attitude that mental health health care is an “indulgence” for whiny white women (and the perception of mental health services as something only white women need plays heavily into stigma when women of color and nonwhite women consider treatment—look at the racist, misogynistic stories surrounding Rihanna, for example, and how they played into the “strong black woman” archetype), and the eager pursuit of celebrity breakdown stories really feeds into that. These women are depicted as weak, selfish, and useless. If they do seek treatment, the media will be filled with speculation along with nasty comments about, say, the parklike environs of expensive inpatient drug rehabilitation centers. When they die, commentators immediately and eagerly attribute it to personal weakness and assume those deaths are substance abuse or mental health related; the same publications that ridiculed and mocked them for erratic behavior like slurring songs on stage happily publish photographs of them being taken out of their homes in body bags.

Actress Lindsay Lohan

A certain amount of schadenfreude tends to surround this kind of reporting and the narratives embedded within it. Readers can feel smug in their predictions that a fragile-minded female celebrity was unable to withstand the rigors of the job. Readers often revel in the very real pain experienced by the subjects of close media attention, and outright mockery of the symptoms of mental illness is not uncommon. How pleasurable it is to see the mighty fall.

In rare cases, it’s a man who becomes a target of public attention, like Charlie Sheen earlier this year. Sheen’s struggles with alcohol abuse became highly public, as did his spates of domestic violence, and many people took delight in reveling in his downfall, just as they do with female celebrities. Many feminist websites participated, arguing that he deserved anything they could dish out because of his history of domestic violence. While sites mocked Sheen, very few people suggested that he might be experiencing symptoms of mental illness, and might benefit from compassionate space rather than endless jokes at his expense; not to excuse his domestic violence, or to argue that mental illness causes domestic violence, but to suggest that his “odd” behavior wasn’t something we should mock, but something we should be concerned by.

Singer Britney Spears

The hunger for celebrity gossip appears unslakable; there’s a reason paparazzi and gossip-mongers can always find employment in Los Angeles. Even in periods of economic depression, in fact perhaps especially in periods of economic depression, the public demands stories about celebrity shenanigans and it particularly wants stories about celebrities gone bad. Celebrities losing control. It consumes, with relish, stories about celebrity breakdowns because many people seem to enjoy a sense of smugness about the downfall of greatness over their morning gossip rag.

Working in Hollywood is intensely stressful, which can tend to add to the risks of experiencing mental illness. It is a highly pressured, fast-paced environment, especially for women, who have to fight twice as hard to attain half the popularity and following of their male peers, while remaining “strong” so they can be the subject of flattering profiles rather than lurid tabloid covers. Drug and alcohol abuse tend to be high in this environment as well; I’ve attended enough Hollywood parties as a non-drinker to know that you experience tremendous pressure to imbibe even when you have good reasons not to do so. While neither drug nor alcohol abuse is necessarily a cause of mental illness, both can cause erratic behavior and they may trigger latent mental illness, especially in a patient who is held under the looking glass instead of being given adequate support.

Many female celebrities also start working very early, when they may be especially vulnerable, as seen with people like Lindsay and Britney, who were both under the age of majority when they started to get popular, tightly controlled by handlers and managers and rarely allowed their own independence. Is it all that surprising that both women lashed out as they grew up?

The titillation over celebrity breakdowns certainly isn’t very helpful for celebrities who may be struggling with intense emotions, sometimes complicated by underlying mental illness. Attitudes about mental health as depicted in pop culture very much play into the way the public demands and consumes stories about celebrities “losing it.” When mental illness becomes a subject of mockery and pleasure throughout the mass media, it is impossible to escape that messaging and harder still to avoid internalizing it.

Related Reading:
Size Matters: Celebrity Schadenfreude
Transcontinental Disability Choir: The Public Consumption of Britney
She Pop: Oh Well, Whatever, Never Mind: On Misogyny, Courtney Love, and the Guitar Hero 5 Controversy


We’re All Mad Here: Of Course We Should Dislike This Character! She’s Crazy!, We’re All Mad Here: Inception & Dom Cobb’s Crazy Lying Dead Wife

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14 Comments Have Been Posted


Well stated.

One word-Freudenschade, it's

One word-Freudenschade, it's German for the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. in particular famous people who seem to have it all.

It's Schadenfreude.

It's Schadenfreude.

I wonder

I wonder if part of it is a lack of understanding of addiction as a mental illness. I think most people do not view it that way, but rather as something you bring on yourself (I'm not saying this is accurate, merely that the view exists). I think that view of addiction allows people to mock addicts (especially celebrity, and thus rich, ones) whereas those same people might never even consider mocking what they recognize as mental illness. I think some views on eating disorders are similar "Can't she see how thin she is?" or "What's wrong with her, many women would kill for a body like she has."

So I think the problem is a lack of understanding of how some of these things work.

Good article. Interestingly

Good article. Interestingly enough, male mental illness is often popularized as madness in genius (e.g., *some* portrayals of Sheen, Einstein, Howard Hughes, countless musicians and artists). The mass media, gender preservative extraordinaire, juxtaposes mental illness in women with fragmentation and weakness.

Yes, for sure! There's very

Yes, for sure! There's very much an idea that mental illness makes men magically creative, while women are just scary.

I think the biggest case of

I think the biggest case of this would be the media frenzy surrounding Michael Jackson, and that's surrounded by a bunch of sticky issues concerning race, addiction, etc.

For sure, and, notably,

For sure, and, notably, another childhood star also, which drags in complexities about exploitation as well.

Fantastic. Your point about

Fantastic. Your point about the outcry over certain lavish treatment facilities is particularly telling, I think. Given that these same media sources actively prop up other upper-class locales (like summer homes, vacation destinations, etc)m the condemnation for treatment centers strikes me as serving a very specific purpose: Coloring (all) treatment as superfluous, useless spending makes it easier for us to cut the social programs that fund treatment at any level. All areas of lifestyles rich-and-famous reflect their rich-and-famousness, but we rarely hear parties, vacations, or weddings mocked and denigrated with this kind of venom.

Nail, head, Mary. This,

Nail, head, Mary. This, exactly. We have entire television shows dedicated to showcasing the immense personal wealth of the rich and famous, to lionising huge houses, luxury cars, etc., and yet people who seek treatment in mental health facilities with nice amenities are demonised in coverage that suggests all mental health treatment is provided in such facilities. Which, yes, leads to calls for cuts to social services!

Absolutely. Great comment to

Absolutely. Great comment to a great post.

Great Critique!

See Sylvia Plath and Husband Ted Hughes(equally depressed white female poet and philandering poet husband featured as the family genius both his latter wife and Sylvia committed in terms of the era (1940-60) and under the prescription of doctors hormonally (female) induced suicides ). It is very unsettling that women are subjected to this treatment, in the case of African American women and men for that matter is the negative stereotyping hype and demise surrounding people of color that would sway them in the opposite direction (not seeking help as these are seen as inherent attributes for our community hidden pain and suffering or addictive and brutal violence-disgraceful). In fact, if depression creativity and whininess were, however, completely synonymous every black person in America would be sitting in diners rambling about etc …etc...(see Seinfeld for further referencing) as it has always been African women must be very resilient and strong to a point of media induced malevolence. The article was very interesting and much appreciated, as there are so many human issues to be worked out, and so many variations and cases in terms of character beyond color that we have found nothing more pleasant and gratifying than souping up the sloppy and tasteless remnants of social/racial eugenics. Notice the interesting link between overbearingly sexualized and compartmentalized black men with whinny white women, and the blatant distrust of the black women in society by the masses. Dopamine isn't all we need. Drive before vehicle, class before school.

I agree...

But I still think that Lindsay Lohan believes that the law does not apply to her.

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