Mental health seems to be the new in-thing in celebrity activism. So much so that even the royals are getting involved.

Prince Harry has joined the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in spearheading the new Heads Together campaign, aiming to end the stigma around mental illness. The younger prince has recently opened up about his mental health after the death of his mother, Princess Diana, when he was just 12 years old. After shutting out and failing to address his grief, the Prince of Wales revealed how this had culminated in his seeking counselling to address his mental health issues. Prince Harry’s publicly discussing his mental health adds to a growing list of celebrities who have begun speaking out about their own difficulties with mental health.

The Heads Together campaign, launched by the three royals earlier this year, have also released a series of short films featuring numerous celebrities delivering the message that it is “OK to say” – in reference to opening up about mental illness. In one film, rapper Professor Green and cricket player Freddie Flintoff talk openly about their own experience of mental health problems and the relief they both felt after being able open up to someone. Rio Ferdinand talks about the passing of his wife, and the grief that followed. Stephen Fry, who is also the president of the mental health charity Mind, is also featured on the Heads Together website discussing his own mental health breakdown with his psychiatrist, as does former press secretary Alistair Campbell and American actress Ruby Wax. These celebrities’ stories about their mental illnesses collectively emphasise the importance and benefits of talking openly about one’s own experiences. With large followings, the coming together of big names behind campaigns to break the stigma attached to mental illness certainly has the ability to influence many people’s thoughts and preconceptions on the matter. The three royals say the goal of these films is to “show people how simple conversations can change the direction of an entire life” and have asked the public to “share them with your friends and families and join us in a national conversation on mental health in the weeks ahead.”

Celebrity activism/humanitarianism, however well-meaning its intentions, is always fraught with problems of representation.

In another recent short film, Prince William and Lady Gaga appear to have an impromptu Skype call, discussing what needs to be done to end the stigma. Lada Gaga also revealed aspects of her own experience of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which she had previously opened up about on her blog. She spoke of the ‘shame’ which surrounds mental illness, but went on to say how she had accepted that this was simply a part of her and that’s okay, concluding that “I don’t feel like we’re hiding anymore”. The conversation ended with the two agreeing to get their heads together soon to “really tackle this”. This is a bold and brave pledge to make. But is it a pledge we really need?

It is important to question how meaningful this kind of celebrity activism actually is for ordinary people facing mental health problems. Celebrity activism/humanitarianism, however well-meaning its intentions, is always fraught with problems of representation. One only has to recall the harrowing lyrics from Band Aid, the infamous collective of privileged stars trying to reach out with empathy to the third world, “where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears” to realise this. Whilst this alarming level of misrepresentation has not quite yet been reached by celebrity mental health activists, it is ever a danger we must be wary of, particularly as the momentum behind the campaign grows, and media engagement expands.

A particularly damaging representation of mental illness is presented in the new Netflix’s series 13 Reasons Why. Selena Gomez, an executive producer of the series, has also been one of the celebrities who has also been talking publicly about her experience with anxiety; a key reason she gives for her involvement in the show. Based on a popular young adult novel by Jay Asher, the show depicts the story of a teenage girl who commits suicide and leaves her classmates a series of tapes, recorded on which are her ‘thirteen reasons why’. But in focussing on the thirteen reasons along with the drama that arises among Hannah’s classmates in response to the tapes, the narrative becomes a sort of blame-game, turning Hannah’s suicide into a ‘whodunnit ’style drama. As a result, the show is almost devoid of any meaningful engagement with the issue of mental illness. This should have been the major theme of the story.

For us all to begin to understand mental health better an appreciation of the complexity and heterogeneity of its manifestations must underpin representations in the media.

13 Reasons Why and other shows, such as Skins, which fail to sensitively and accurately portray mental illness, demonstrates the problems of representation that can come out of popular engagement with mental health problems. Whilst celebrities telling their own stories in aid of reducing the stigma is unlikely to be quite so damaging as these TV shows, there is still the risk of homogenising mental illness or mental health. These issues are deeply personal experiences, and what coping or relief methods work for one individual may differ amongst others. In an age where young people are able to follow the lives of big-name celebrities through a range of social media platforms, the experiences of just a few particularly well-known and vocal celebrities could become common understandings of what mental health/illness actually is. This should not be the case. For us all to begin to understand mental health better an appreciation of the complexity and heterogeneity of its manifestations must underpin representations in the media. Celebrity activism is unlikely to achieve this; too often the egos or personalities of the stars are relied upon to drive forward such campaigns, despite undoubtedly good intentions.

Perhaps more coverage of ordinary people suffering from mental health problems is what is needed. Admittedly, Heads Together’s ‘OK to say’ series does feature some of these kinds of stories too. But this is something of an add-on, and will always be overshadowed by the celebrity stories – especially as part of a campaign fronted by members of the Royal family.

Through focussing almost exclusively on the issue of reducing the stigma, celebrity activism also misses a further set of potentially more critical issues in mental health. Improving how society supports those with mental health problems requires more than just awareness. It also crucially requires policies and an institutional framework which guarantees accessible and effective support. Currently, there are a number of barriers preventing this goal. Most significant is the lack of political will to deliver the necessary change.

Around 40% of mental health trusts in England have seen their budgets cut over the past four years, and none have had their funding increased.

The changes to benefits in the government’s spring budget shows that those currently in power are far from helping. The Personal Independence Payment (PIP) was altered by the government in order to exclude those with severe mental health problems, such as psychological distress. Paul Farmer, the Chief Executive of the charity Mind wrote: “People who find it difficult to leave the house because of anxiety, panic attacks, and other mental health problems are as restricted in their independence as many people with physical mobility problems, and face just as many higher costs in their daily lives as other disabled people do.” Farmer predicted that the changes to PIP could affect up to 160,000 people with mental health problems. Alongside cuts to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) these are very damaging policy changes for those whose mental health affects their ability to work. Access to professional support is also being continuously confounded by cuts to NHS mental health services. Around 40% of mental health trusts in England have seen their budgets cut over the past four years, and none have had their funding increased. New figures indicate that mental health spending is being cut by £4.5million in five English regions this year. Reaching out for support is a huge step for people with mental health problems. But if society fails to offer them adequate support then the stigma is simply reproduced at the institutional level.

In this sense, celebrity activism can only go so far. The pivotal change to be enacted rests in the hands of policy makers. Celebrities speaking out about their experiences of mental health cannot directly instigate this kind of change. Over time it may indirectly influence policy through affecting society’s preferences. But given the problems of representation inherent within celebrity activism, one has to ask what these preferences would look like, and if they would really be to the benefit of the mental health of the majority of ordinary people. For direct and genuinely effective change in the way our society approaches mental health we don’t need celebrity activists, we simply need policymakers to listen to and understand the needs of those in our society in need of support for their mental health.


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