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Simone Biles — one of the greatest gymnasts in U.S. history — stunned the world in 2021 by withdrawing from Olympic competition in Tokyo, citing a need to focus on her mental health and well-being. Her action followed a decision by top tennis player Naomi Osaka earlier the same year to step away from upcoming tournaments, saying, “I do hope that people can relate and understand it’s OK to not be OK.”

In the past, such an admission might be considered a sign of weakness or personal tragedy, but times are changing. We are in a critical moment in which the stories of celebrities and major public figures around mental health and substance use disorder can promote greater acceptance, open dialogue, and support for seeking treatment and help across a range of mental health and substance use disorder issues.

“Public figures are seen as very successful, hard workers,” said Dr. Amanda Calhoun, a child psychiatry resident at the Yale School of Medicine. “They have achieved a lot of what people look up to and admire. And if someone like that can say, ‘I’m taking a break because I need it, and because I’m struggling,’ then that’s really, really powerful.”

Calhoun was the lead author of a 2020 study titled “I Feel Like I Know Them: the Positive Effect of Celebrity Self-Disclosure of Mental Illness,” which stresses that the public receives much of its mental health and substance use disorder education from entertainment media. While the suicide rate in the U.S. rose following the death of actor Robin Williams, the study points out, calls placed to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline also increased threefold during the same time, suggesting that Williams’ suicide may have prompted people to seek help.  

When celebrities disclose their mental health conditions and the fact that they are getting help, it represents an opportunity for mental health and substance use disorder healthcare providers. It’s also an opportunity to connect with people and offer services to get them help.

“It really can only be a positive thing if you have folks who are famous or well-known showing this kind of vulnerability and transparency,” said Dr. Gary Proctor, Beacon Health Options national medical director for provider partnerships. “But I do think there are significant pockets of the population where recognizing mental health conditions is still looked at as a weakness — something you don’t talk about, or something that will go away.”

Sometimes these differences in perception can be attributed to culture or to generational experience. A 2018 study published by the National Institutes of Health surveyed more than one million social posts. It concluded that mental health conditions were significantly more stigmatized, or trivialized, online in comparison to physical health conditions.

“For young people, adolescents, and young adults, I think it’s more challenging,” Proctor said. “If you put out on social media that you may be experiencing depression, or you may be thinking about suicide, there are those who will use that for a type of cyberbullying. It can be a very big risk for young people to share their thoughts on-line.”

Several prominent personalities, including actors Jonah Hill and Tom Holland, have recently used their celebrity soapbox to advocate for taking breaks from social media, explicitly linking its use to their own mental health concerns. These conversations are another way in which public figures can contribute to overall mental health and substance use disorder education — particularly since care providers are seeing increases in mental health disorders in younger children.

“The things teenagers are going through today are not the same as the older generations did,” Dr. Proctor added. “The things they’re dealing with are very different than what we might have dealt with 10, 20, or 30 years ago.”

While society seems unlikely to put the genies of social media and information saturation back into the bottle any time soon, there is great hope that promoting narratives of admitting mental health conditions and seeking help can drive preventive treatment and healthier outcomes around mental health. Dr. Calhoun’s study points out that Princess Diana’s admission decades ago that she had experienced bulimia doubled the number of women seeking treatment for the condition.

“We’ve seen tangible evidence of public figures disclosing they have a mental health condition and advocating for people seeking help leading to results,” Calhoun said. “That’s a really good opportunity for a psychiatrist such as myself and other mental health professionals to get positive and accurate information out there about mental health disabilities — and how it’s an illness like any other. No one thinks negatively about people having high blood pressure and diabetes, and it should be the same.”

“We’ve seen tangible evidence of public figures disclosing they have a mental health condition and advocating for people seeking help leading to results."

Dr. Amanda Calhoun

Yale School of Medicine

Increasing acceptance around mental health and substance use disorders requires time and concerted effort. Promoting better mental health includes recognizing the many ways that stories of seeking help can reduce stigma, increase acceptance, and promote empathy, compassion, and support for people on their well-being journey.

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