Celebrities like Deepika Padukone, Ileana D'Cruz and a few others have opened up about their mental health issues in the recent past.

Has celebrities talking about their mental health changed things on ground
news Mental Health Tuesday, July 02, 2019 - 14:47

Four years ago, actor Deepika Padukone first spoke about her struggle with depression. She described how she persistently felt low, and had the overwhelming urge to cry even though her career was on an upward graph, and she had the support of her loved ones. While she may not have been the first to speak about depression, she remains one of the most prominent names when it comes to Indian celebrities who have spoken about their struggles with mental health.

In the years since, actors like Anushka Sharma and Ileana D’Cruz have also spoken about their journeys through anxiety, and body dysmorphic disorder as well as suicidal thoughts respectively. 

Even as public figures share their stories, have things changed on ground? Are people actually getting inspired by these public admissions to open up and seek help themselves? We spoke to some mental health practitioners to find out.

Better relatability, but stigma persists

Vandhana, a clinical psychologist, believes that celebrities speaking about their experience with mental illnesses has indeed helped. “We can try raising as much awareness as we want, but media has better reach and is more powerful.”

“When people come to me, I am able to give them examples of famous people who have gone public about their struggles with mental health to put my patients at ease… to tell them that this is okay,” she says.

Dr U Vivek, a consulting psychiatrist at Renai Medicity in Kochi, also says that he tries to motivate people, saying that there are celebrities also who have mental health issues. However, the stigma is hard to get rid of. “People still say things like it would be better if their daughter had cancer than Bipolar Disorder.”

Gajalakshmi, a Chennai-based clinical psychologist, agrees. She reveals that going to a therapist is still associated with much more shame than going to, say, a cardiologist. “I have had people turn down medication for mental illness, but if an anxiety medication is prescribed by a neurologist, they would eagerly take it. People still believe that going to a therapist and being on medication for mental health is akin to being ‘crazy’,” she says.

“Using celebrities’ stories works once the person comes to the therapist. But that itself is a big step for which we’re still facing reluctance,” Gajalakshmi adds.

How better representation can help

Practitioners also say that representation in popular culture can also make or break the situation when it comes to awareness.

On one hand, Vandhana says that she has used examples from popular culture to make mental health more accessible to her patients. For instance, she used the example of the Suriya and Amala Paul starrer Pasanga 2 to explain to an anxious couple how Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) was affecting their child. “After I mentioned the film, I saw the comprehension dawn on their faces immediately,” Vandhana recounts.

On the other hand, however, incorrect representation, or one that romanticises mental illness, can also do harm. Vandhana gives the example of the controversial film Kabir Singh, the Hindi remake of Telugu film Arjun Reddy. “We are shown that Shahid Kapoor struggles with substance abuse and anger management, but at no point is it shown that he seeks help for those issues. I really wish they had shown that,” she says.

And while some films, such as Tapsee Pannu’s recent Game Over do show a woman with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) seeking help from a therapist, Vandhana laments that too many films show the issues, but not people seeking help for them.

Further, Dr Vivek points out, “There are also stereotypes for patients and psychiatrists that are perpetuated in cinema, which can give people unreal expectations about therapy.”

An example of the above is the Shah Rukh Khan and Alia Bhatt-starrer Dear Zindagi, which broke ground in Bollywood for making mental health and therapy an explicit and central part of the film. However, it was pointed out by some that the representation of therapy and Alia being seemingly 'cured' was too rosy, and inaccurate.

The need to raise awareness about other disorders

While depression and anxiety may have become more commonplace in public discourse, others disorders and mental illnesses like schizophrenia, dementia, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, to name a few, do not have similar awareness efforts from stars.

Two mental health practitioners told TNM on the condition of anonymity that there are public figures who are affected by these serious mental health issues as well, but are perhaps not able to open up about it because the stigma is significantly more. Rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh is one of the rare Indian celebrities who has talked about having Bipolar Disorder.  

“They would rather say that it’s a serious physical health issue than state that they have been admitted to the hospital for mental health related issues,” notes one psychiatrist.

These disorders are not well represented in the popular media either, barring some exceptions like the Aamir Khan and Darsheel Safari Bollywood film Taare Zameen Par, which shed light on dyslexia in a good way, says Karthikayani Murugan, a clinical psychologist practising in Coimbatore. To contrast, she gives the example of Dhanush and Shruti Haasan’s 2012 film 3, where Dhanush’s character Ram has bipolar disorder. “While talking to my friends about it, I realised that they assumed that Ram was shown as depressed in the film. They had no clue that something like bipolar disorder even exists; they were just aware about depression and anxiety,” she says.

The increased focus on the likes of depression and anxiety in comparison to other disorders has, in some cases, lead people to incorrectly self-diagnose themselves and even start medication. “There have been some cases where people have run an internet search, concluded that they have anxiety or depression and gotten hold of the medication. When they’ve ultimately had to consult a professional, it is revealed that they have something else,” Karthikayani shares.

While everyone’s mental health journey is their own, experts agree that there is a need for public figures to lend their voices to more complex mental health issues, disorders, and learning disabilities too.

“It’s true that they also gain popularity from it. With the reach and platforms they have, if they do one commercial film, they should also do one educational film that will help the viewers understand these issues better,” Vandhana maintains. 

Show us some love! Support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.