Mental Health of the Rich and Famous

Last Sunday’s American Music Awards dawned the return of Selena Gomez into the spotlight. After a few months off, Selena’s AMA red carpet appearance was her first since a low-profile stint in rehab. Gomez was reportedly struggling with issues of anxiety related to her performance schedule (among other things). As she dazzled in red, the world was excited to see music’s sweetheart back smiling in the public eye. Her signature grace and bubbly, natural beauty sparked an outpouring of support from social media. Both her fans and the general public took her appearance as a personal triumph for the star. It was when Selena won the award for Best Female Pop Artist, however, that she really got to make her statement of triumph.

Clutching her glass pyramid, Gomez spoke of both her struggle and her gratitude. Though she never coughed up the words “depression” or “anxiety”, she quickly became the star of the show as others recognized her as brave for admitting her personal issues. Other artists in attendance applauded and congratulated her. Selena became the #1 trending topic on Twitter within minutes. Her show-stopping moment trickled into Monday. Headline news on this mornings’ Today’s Talk read “Gomez Gets Real”. Eating my breakfast I watched a recap of Selena’s eyes welling as she spoke– “if you are broken, you do not have to stay broken”. And while those words were highlighted as powerful and brave, I had to question if what I was seeing was truly real.

Celebrities in rehab are by no means an unfamiliar conception to us. Beginning even in the golden age of Hollywood, starlets were whisked away between film schedules to recover from their private habits. By now the term “rockstar” immediately implicates rehab somewhere along the way. Overtime the entertainment industry has recycled celebrities with reputably washed up careers, creating a comeback narrative for so many. The most prominent example of a publicized mental break is none other than Britney Spears’ 5150 hold in 2007.

Suffering from bipolar disorder, Spears infamously had a media frenzy surrounding her breakdown. For about a year, every newsstand in America had multiple incredulous paparazzi photos of Brit running rampant, acting impulsively, crying and simply losing it. The 2000’s age of the celebutante ran a circle of unwell stars– Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, and most recently, Amanda Bynes all (very) publicly struggled with mental health concerns. Their stories were labeled American tragedies and the general public saw their struggles as the trashy irresponsibility of young money.

The general dismissal of Britney’s mental struggle was due to the compartmentalization of her image. At the time, people could easily dissociate themselves from those crazy people in Hollywood by shoving the stigma of mental illness onto the foreignness of fame. But a lot has changed since then. Within the last ten years, the understanding of mental health has progressed leaps and bounds. Slowly, our mental wellbeing has developed into an acceptable and valid piece to our person. The treatment of anxiety and depression is now looked at as a medical concern, fighting decades of the connotation of insanity.

When Selena Gomez announced she would be “taking time off” for her mental health, her sanity was never once questioned in the media. Previously diagnosed with Lupus, Selena has spoken openly about the toll her condition takes on both her body and her spirit. Entering rehab, fans rushed to Gomez’s digital side– even though this break meant a social media hiatus– to cheer her on through her dark time.

The American Music Awards extended a warm welcome to Selena fresh out of treatment. The coverage of the ceremony often landed on Selena, whose mere attendance symbolized a comeback of sorts. Her award acceptance speech was meant to communicate her struggle and her victory over mental illness. But as stunning as she looked, and as ernest as her words were, it is important to consider the speaker.

Of today’s celebrities, this storyline is reoccurring. Stars like Demi Lovato, Zayn Malik and even Beyoncé have all opened up about their strife with mental illness. Unlike the projected wild, party girl image of the last decade, these celebrities are notable role models. Selena Gomez in particular has built an image that is mostly wholesome, natural and sweet. And even though her message to us about mental health was just that, it missed some serious key points.

The average person’s fight against depression will not look like Selena’s fight.The first incongruence with the average lifestyle is the quality of treatment one can receive for mental illness. Selena took time off at a Christian-based rehab facility, complete with therapeutic activities like horseback riding. Her time for self-reflection paired with excellent doctors lends itself to a healthy recovery. However the convoluted healthcare system of today does not allow an extended medical leave for anyone. Those battling mental illness often work to provide for themselves and their families. An enriched leave for mental restoration is simply not possible for most everyone dealing with depression.

Secondly, Selena Gomez’s personal decision and willingness to enter treatment is not everyone’s experience. Often friends and families have to make painful decisions for their loved ones and their treatment options. I can’t belittle her decision to seek help because her struggle is just as valid as anyone else. But the graceful and quiet nature of her exit should not be the expectation. Often the choice to go to rehab is tumultuous, confusing and vulnerable– feelings not totally reflected in limited media stories maintaining the image of a beautiful starlet.

Monday’s account of Kanye West’s hospitalization shocked the nation. His recent erratic behavior reflected a slip in sanity for the superstar. The ordeal of his hospitalization (still unclear if it was voluntary or not) represents a more clunky and realistic peak of mental illness. After canceling 21 tour dates, West was reportedly suffering from sleep deprivation and had entered psychosis. Until Kanye and his family are able to speak their truth, speculation on his actual condition will continue.

West’s breakdown can apply as slightly more reflexive of the average person’s experience with a mental health battle. One affected by mental illness can sometimes lash out at those they love. Before his hospitalization, Kanye was booed on stage in Sacramento for expressing his distain for Beyoncé and Jay-Z. The way people act in the thick of their struggle is not their true selves. As Kanye’s experience lead him to lose multitudes of fans, the average person’s experience with mental illness entails a great deal of loss too.

It is also important to consider Kanye West’s status. As an outspoken black male, his current situation proves that mental illness shows no mercy. Visibility for mental illness in diverse cultures and communities is necessary and relevant. Despite our preconceived notions about mental health and weakness, masculinity does not protect anyone. Kanye’s infamous toughness and veracity did not shield him from a mental break. Because mental illness knows no boundaries, it can ultimately be understood and supported by all backgrounds– providing more strength to those battling.

Lastly, Selena’s glittering, movie-esque return to the outside world is truly something you will only see on television. Rehabilitation is a paramount tool in helping those fighting depression (or any other mental illness). Though its life-saving capabilities prove completely beneficial, one does not enter and exit rehab like an auto repair shop. After medical attention is provided and plans are enacted, the fight against mental illness is life-long. Surviving that battling does not result in a Cinderella story after a few weeks. In speaking to my friends and family members who have overcome depression and addiction,  they say their happiness and strength has built up over years (and years) of resilience. The goal was never to stay on top after being so low, but to continue experiencing the great peaks and valleys of this life, taking it one day at a time.

Selena’s 45-second acceptance speech offered a watered-down and family-friendly explanation of her win over struggle. Proclaiming she didn’t need validation anymore (from Instagram?), her statement was one representative of fortitude. Though I can easily pick apart her experience from the bits strewn together in the media, Selena Gomez deals with the pounding pressure of fame, pleasing the masses and performing– all of which we will never fully understand. Standpoint is key in regarding the issue of mental health. We struggle and fight in completely different ways, living our different lives. Often the experience is lonely, inconvenient and oppressing. But these few similarities can help bond together those with the same battle.

If there ever was a takeaway from Selena’s returning remarks, it is to listen and support those with mental health concerns. The pain of mental illness can weave its way into anyone’s life– beautiful pop stars, hip-hop moguls and the rest of us. As Selena encouraged, caring for others bridges these differences and helps, if only little, heal.