First, let’s try to agree on something.
Media outlets can be tremendous sources of information in a hyper-connected world, but they can also be extremely slanted and misleading. When the goal is to increase viewership and ratings, incentives become misaligned, and the viewers suffer.
Kanye West is running for President of the United States.
You may have seen that headline. It stirs up emotions in people. It makes for a snappy, attention-grabbing title. But what’s beneath the surface is that Mr. West lives with bipolar disorder. He’s made reference to it before, and he’s even mentioned it on an album cover.
Instead of providing objective reporting on the situation and using outrageous behavior as a teaching opportunity, media outlets–and the people they inspire–focus on Kanye’s extreme, ridiculous behaviors. This makes for a great story, but it doesn’t help the world understand the mental health spectrum that we’re all on.
Why do we love celebrity mental illness drama? And why do we think it’s OK when a celebrity breakdown like Kanye’s–or Britney Spears’, or Amanda Bynes’, or an addiction issue like Ben Affleck’s or Robert Downey Jr.’s–gets blown out of proportion and exposed in a glaringly dramatic light?
I think we do this because we like the exposure. We all know what it’s like to feel unsteady–so unsteady that we teeter on the verge of breakdown. So we place our feelings at a safe distance. We latch on to the misfortune of celebrities because they are, to put it bluntly, celebrities, and we think they deserve the good and the bad that they get.
The problem with this is that no one deserves to be called out, teased, or taunted for mental health issues. This only makes mental health stigma worse.
Celebrity mental illness then becomes a “safe” way to talk about mental illness in general. We think we’re making progress when we discuss an “exotic” mental illness like bipolar disorder at all, but we’re doing the opposite. We’re blowing up an image so large and slamming it into view that it becomes distorted–and we can’t see the forest for the trees at that point. We can’t see the system underpinning the disorder.