by Diana Hembree
Talking about abuse and mental illness used to be off limits. In recent years, though, many celebrities have tried to break that stigma in an effort to let their young fans know they’re not alone.
A number of these celebrities are prominent African Americans. One of the first to break the taboos was talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who stunned her fans by revealing she had been sexually and physically abused as a child. “Anybody who has been verbally abused or physically abused will spend a great deal of their life rebuilding their esteem,” she told one interviewer, adding that her biggest regret was that “I wasn’t able to move the needle far enough on abuse in this country.”
There’s still a lot of shame about abuse, which makes it hard for teens to ask for help – something that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson well understands. He revealed on Twitter that he has suffered from depression since helping rescue his mother from a suicide attempt when he was 15. “Depression never discriminates,” wrote Johnson, 45, in 2018. “Took me a long time to realize it, but the key is to not be afraid to open up. Especially us dudes have a tendency to keep it in. You’re not alone.”
Rapper Kendrick Lamar knows the price of keeping everything inside. In 2015, he revealed his fame was accompanied by severe depression and thoughts of suicide. Some of his lyrics were later used in an ad campaign by Kaiser Permanente to urge people with depression to seek help.
In one 90-second Kaiser spot, a young boy ambles through a lonely cityscape with Lamar’s lyrics in the background. “I’ve been dealing with depression ever since adolescence,” the boy raps in a voiceover. “Duckin’ every other blessin’, I can never see the message / Everybody lack confidence / What you gonna do? Keep movin’… / I keep my fee-fi-fo-fum. I keep my heart undone …”
Meanwhile, other celebrities have spoken out about their struggles with mental illness. These include the late Carrie Fisher, an actress and writer perhaps best known for her portrayal of Princess Leia in Star Wars and her semi-autobiographical novel “Postcards from the Edge.” She and singer Demi Lovato and Mariah Carey have all talked extensively about their battles with bipolar illness.
Others have followed suit: Stand-up comedian Margaret Cho reports she has wrestled with depression and obsessive thoughts; actress Gina Rodriguez has talked about her paralyzing anxiety disorder; and singer Lady Gaga and actress Glenn Close have become mental health advocates. Prince Harry of Great Britain even broke royal tradition in disclosing how valuable it was for him to see a therapist to deal with the “chaos” of his late twenties. He has since lobbied for better mental health care for veterans.
ACEs and mental illness
Not all mental illness stems from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, neglect, unstable housing or being separated from your parents, of course, but there is a strong link between the two. If you were emotionally abused in childhood, for example, you have a higher risk of developing a depression-related disorder in later life. You also have a higher risk of substance abuse disorders and other mental health problems.
For teens and young people struggling with mental illness or childhood, learning about celebrities who’ve had similar experiences can be freeing.
“Looking at [other people who had bipolar disorder] gave me a sense of I’m not alone when times are tough,” 20-year-old Charlotte Horton of the University of Cincinnati told the LA Times. “I can become successful. I can make my own story rather than just let my mental illness control my life.”
Londoner Luke Vitale, 24, has suffered from depression and anxiety since he was a teen. For Lamar, Stormzy and Kid Cudi to talk about their struggles with depression was unusually helpful, he told the BBC. “I’m African, and when I have spoken to others in my community, I have received responses like, “Why are you depressed?” and “Just pull yourself together and be a man … For [Lamar and others] to talk about that subject was big and really helped a lot of others my age.”
What parents can do
Recognize warning signs. An irritable or sad mood for days; lack of energy; loss of interest in friends or family; trouble sleeping; lack of energy and focus; and a “flat” demeanor: All these can be signs of depression. Other personality and behavior changes may be a sign of trauma, substance use or another mental illness.
Get a medical check-up. A physical illness may be causing these symptoms. In addition, ACEs screening, which asks about abuse, neglect and other things that can cause trauma, can be a first step toward healing treatment.
Give your child some undivided attention every day. Create daily “anchoring” rituals your kids can count on, including family dinners, outdoor play, homework time, bedtime stories and/or drives where they get a chance to talk with you one on one. Try to help your kids get enough exercise, sleep and a healthy diet. Too little sleep is linked with increased aggression, apathy and depression, so encourage an early bedtime.
If your neighborhood is unsafe for playing, see if you can sign your child up for afterschool programs (the fees are often minimal for low-income parents). If you’re short on money for food, ask your doctor about the closest food banks and how to use SNAP (akin to food stamps) at farmers markets and groceries to double the amount of fruits and vegetables you can buy. As for sleep, if your living situation is unstable and ill-suited for a good night’s sleep, your family doctor may be able to point you to family housing assistance programs.
Consider counseling. Counseling and other kinds of mental health treatment can be extremely helpful for children going through a rough time. If you’ve experienced trauma as a child or adult, this kind of support may also help you.
Don’t feel embarrassed about getting help. Nearly 44 million Americans are affected by mental illness each year, so you and your children have plenty of company. Lisa Nicole Carson, an African-American actress who starred in “ER,” “Ally McBeal” and feature films but dropped from sight for a while to deal with her bipolar illness, has urged everyone not to be afraid to see a doctor or therapist for mental health problems. “We just have to take our mental health as seriously as we do the physical,” she told Essence magazine. “I’m now stronger and ready for what’s next.”
If your child talks about self-harm or suicide, seek professional help immediately. This is a clear and urgent sign of distress.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2018). Sleep. Retrieved from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/sleep/Pages/default.aspx
American Academy of Pediatrics/HealthyKids.org. (2018). “Adolescent Depression: What Parents Can Do to Help.” American Academy of Pediatrics. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/emotional-problems/Pages/Childhood-Depression-What-Parents-Can-Do-To-Help.aspx
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2012). “The Science of Neglect: The Persistent Absence of Responsive Care Disrupts the Developing Brain: Working Paper No. 12.” Retrieved from http://developingchild.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/The-Science-of-Neglect-The-Persistent-Absence-of-Responsive-Care-Disrupts-the-Developing-Brain.pdf
Diana Hembree is a science writer for the Center for Youth Wellness. She is an award-winning journalist who has worked at Time Inc., the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Energy Bioscience Institute and has written or edited for Forbes, HealthDay, the Washington Post, PBS Frontline, Vibe and many other places. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.