Is Our Celebrity Obsession Helping to De-Stigmatize Mental Illness?

A rash of teen idols, singers, actors, and actresses have all come out recently detailing their struggles. 


Few things in our society are stigmatized quite like mental illness. Most people try to hide it or manage it on their own. Few seek help. But it is exceedingly common. Nearly one in five Americans – 42.5 million adults – wrestles with it. Worldwide one in four, or 450 million people, suffer with some sort of psychological issue.  

Everyone has their own problems of course, both physical and psychological, to one degree or another. Yet, as humans, our high regard for the brain, intellect, and stability make mental illness seem more shocking and less acceptable. Perhaps for certain societies, it harks back to the idea that those with mental illness are possessed by an evil spirt or even satan. With the advent of science, mental illness became seen as a personal failing rather than a spiritual one.

Though seeking treatment may be more acceptable now, the issue of mental illness itself is more pressing today than it has been in decades. The teen suicide rate for instance rose 25% between 1999 and 2014, after a steady downward trend through the '80s and '90s. Today, girls are particularly prone. But it isn’t just teens. Every adult age group under age 75 has seen a significant increase in its suicide rate. The numbers are even more disturbing if we consider that far more attempt the act than accomplish it.

One thing that captures our imagination is celebrities. Whether splashed across magazine covers or TV and movie screens, celebrities are the royalty of the modern era. They’ve reached almost godlike status. Outbursts and jaunts with mental illness and substance abuse among them is certainly nothing new. But today, more and more are speaking out about living with a psychological disorder in a deeply personal way, and experts wonder if this might not make a more substantial impression and so lessen the stigma.

Teen idol Selena Gomez recently opened up about her struggles with anxiety and depression at the American Music Awards. After accepting hers for favorite female rock-pop artist, she said that along her journey, though she soon “had everything,” she often felt “absolutely broken inside.” Ms. Gomez drove herself hard so as to not disappoint her fans, but forgot to devote some energy to herself. Her advice: “If you are broken, you don’t have to stay broken.”


Selena Gomez recently spoke out about her struggles with anxiety and depression at the American Music Awards.

Gomez wasn’t the only celebrity popular among young people to open up. Justin Bieber, actress Rowan Blanchard, and model and actress Cara Delevingne have all recently revealed having depression. Singer and songwriter Halsey went one step further in an interview with Billboard about bipolar disorder. Adele similarly discussed her bout with postpartum depression with Vanity Fair. Bieber and Blanchard instead opened up via Instagram.

Other celebrities who have “come out” in this manner include JK Rowling, Brooke Shields, Glenn Close, and Lena Dunham, though in the case of Close, it was her sister she was supporting. Actress, singer, and songwriter Demi Lovato became so passionate about mental healthcare, that she is now the spokesperson for the, “Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health” campaign. “If you know someone or if you’re dealing with it yourself, just know that it is possible to live well,” she told People. “I’m living proof of that.”   

This isn’t occurring only amongst celebrity women. In Bruce Springsteen’s recent autobiography Born to Run, he talks about his lifelong battle with depression. African-American men, perhaps due to a macho streak, have culturally been one of the least likely to open up about certain struggles. But rapper Kid Cudi has gone against the grain. He recently discussed with fans on his Facebook page his decision to check into rehab for anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. In the last several years, hip-hop has become more emotional.  

Mental health issues are being treated differently by Hollywood nowadays too. It used to be that those with mental illness were depicted as raving lunatics, to be locked away in frightening, prison-like institutions. Today shows like FXX’s You’re the Worst and films such as Silver Linings Playbook show a more human side, with characters we relate to and feel for.

Hip-hop artist Kid Cudi recently opened up about his bouts with depression and thoughts of suicide.

So is this trend a case of celebrities leading the way, or is the stigma surrounding mental health issues beginning to recede? After all, in American society, acceptance of psychotherapy became far more widespread starting the 1960s, and Patty Duke arguably in the '80s was the first superstar to advocate for mental health. Harvard Square psychotherapist Melissa Kelly told the Boston Globe that this new celebrity trend is very helpful for those who are struggling, especially young people.

Even so, she has noticed that among millennials, opening up to each other about seeing a therapist and working on themselves is more acceptable. It is not seen as a failing of character, but merely a part of “self-care.” A recent Harris Poll backs this up. It found that among those ages 18 to 25, receiving mental healthcare is more acceptable than for older adults.

So is this a case of life reflecting art or the other way around? That might be hard to tease out. Even so, a stigma remains. But for someone with a serious disorder, such as depression, hearing that your favorite celebrity has suffered similar struggles and yet, still managed to make their dreams come true, can be incredibly heartening. It may even give them the motivation to seek help for themselves.

To learn more about the stigma surrounding mental illness, click here: 

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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