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Mind in the Media: Does Celebrity Disclosure of Mental Health Issues Have an Impact?

Photo of Selena Gomez in her home wearing white shirt with hair pulled back

Verywell / Apple TV+

From Madonna: Truth or Dare to Jennifer Lopez in Halftime, many celebrities have offered glimpses into their lives through documentaries. Today, more than ever, many celebrities are using documentaries to deliver intimate looks into aspects of their lives with a nuance that social media and traditional celebrity journalism don’t allow. Two recent examples are Apple TV+’s Selena Gomez: My Mind and Me and Netflix’s Stutz, directed by Oscar-nominated actor Jonah Hill.

My Mind and Me offers insight into the past few years of the life of superstar singer and actor Gomez, a time during which she dealt with the autoimmune disease lupus, received a kidney transplant, and confronted overwhelming mental health challenges, including a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Meanwhile, Stutz is an ode to Hill’s psychiatrist Phil Stutz, in which many of the therapeutic techniques that Dr. Stutz used to help Hill are shared, even as Hill provides a peek at the body image issues and other difficulties, including the untimely death of his brother, that led him to seek out Dr. Stutz’s help.

While the two documentaries are very different in form and focus, they both include deeply personal admissions of mental health struggles by well-known celebrities.

These raw and vulnerable moments contrast greatly with the glitz and glamour we normally associate with celebrities, whether they’re walking red carpets or performing on stage. Yet, celebrities have become increasingly more willing to disclose and discuss mental health on social media, in interviews, and in documentaries.

But do celebrity disclosures of their mental health issues, such as the ones seen in My Mind and Me and Stutz, have a genuine effect on viewers' perceptions of mental health issues? This article will examine how and why celebrity disclosures of mental illness impact viewers.

The Power of Destigmatization and Relatability

While celebrity disclosures of mental health concerns will not impact every viewer in the same way, Cynthia Hoffner, a Professor of communication at Georgia State University who studies the psychology of media uses and effects, says overall, when celebrities choose to discuss their struggles with mental health, it can have positive results.

"Somebody who's dealing with mental health issues," Hoffner says, “When someone dealing with mental health issues sees that respected, popular, positive public figures are talking about experiencing the same things, it normalizes that experience. Like, ‘I'm not the only one who's experiencing this issue, these other people who I really like and respect or that others really like and respect are dealing with this too.’”

This has the potential to be the catalyst for people who haven’t yet sought treatment for mental health concerns and enables others, including those who are currently in treatment for mental health issues, to feel that if a celebrity like Jonah Hill or Selena Gomez can confront their mental health challenges and still be successful, that they can as well.

Cynthia Hoffner, PhD

When someone dealing with mental health issues sees that respected, popular, positive public figures are talking about experiencing the same things, it normalizes that experience.

— Cynthia Hoffner, PhD

Moreover, celebrity disclosures can help lower the stigma associated with mental illness, especially for those who aren’t dealing with these issues. As Hoffner points out, news coverage of mental health is often negative, which can result in stereotypes about people with mental illness as violent, dangerous, or a burden to society.

“When people have these kinds of stereotypes, and then they see a popular public figure talking about dealing with these mental health issues, that can contribute to a reduction in stigma….,” Hoffner observes. “So if you're a fan of Selena Gomez, and you're not dealing with mental health issues, you watch [My Mind and Me] or you hear or see an interview she does about it, you may actually become more accepting of people who are facing these challenges.”

When celebrities like Jonah Hill and Selena Gomez openly discuss their psychological concerns, it acts as a counter-narrative to the negative media coverage of mental illness. For many people, watching documentaries where these individuals discuss confronting mental health issues, even as they continue to successfully maintain their professional and personal lives, normalizes these issues and makes them seem less strange and unusual to the average person.

Why Do These Films Have an Impact?

Of course, most of the people watching Stutz or My Mind and Me have never met Jonah Hill or Selena Gomez in real life. So it may seem strange that their documentaries can help destigmatize perceptions of mental illness.

However, there are several ways in which we can form connections with celebrities that may make us more likely to listen and learn from them.

Parasocial Interactions and Parasocial Relationships

Two of the ways we form these connections with celebrities are through parasocial interactions and parasocial relationships. Parasocial interactions happen when a media consumer feels as if they’re interacting with a media figure as they watch or listen to them.

Meanwhile, parasocial relationships are one-sided social relationships that a media consumer forms with a media figure that often take the form of friendship-like bonds. While these concepts may sound odd at first glance, forming parasocial bonds with a media figure is actually perfectly normal and simply an extension of our natural desire for social connection.

"In general, people have a need to connect with other human beings," Hoffner observes. "And so the fact that, generally speaking, people form emotional connections with public figures, even with fictional characters, is an extension of our normal need for… belongingness and social connection.”

So when people form parasocial relationships, “it’s not delusional. It's not like people actually think these are their personal friends. Parasocial bonds are just the sense that… you feel this emotional connection to them as a friend or as a relational partner,” says Hoffner.

As a result, when a celebrity an individual has a parasocial relationship with discusses their challenges with mental health, it’s more likely to make the individual listen and potentially rethink their beliefs.

As Gayle Stever, a Professor of social and behavioral sciences at Empire State College/SUNY, who studies parasocial phenomena, notes, when a celebrity confesses to struggling with a mental health issue, many of the “people who stigmatize [mental illness] will think twice about the way they're responding to people who have these struggles,” because documentaries like Stutz and My Mind and Me alert them to the fact that someone they know and like is dealing with mental health challenges.

Just like if a friend revealed a mental health diagnosis, viewers who have parasocial relationships with Hill or Gomez are more likely to feel more positively toward and understanding of people who are struggling with mental illnesses after learning these celebrities are dealing with the same thing. “People who form these kinds of relationships with public figures who then disclose, especially if it happens after they've already formed these connections,” Hoffner says, “then it can have a more powerful impact.”

Parasocial Contact and the Stigma of Mental Health

In fact, parasocial interactions with a celebrity or other media figure can be so powerful, there’s evidence that it can reduce prejudice and stigma in much the same way real-life contact with people who are different than ourselves can reduce prejudice and stigma. The parasocial contact hypothesis suggests that parasocial interaction with a celebrity can do this if the three conditions below are met:

The Parasocial Contact Hypothesis

  • The media consumer’s interaction with the media figure has to recur or be sustained over a period of time, such as the sustained interaction viewers have with Gomez in My Mind and Me and Hill in Stutz.
  • The depiction of the media figure has to present new information about the topic that's different from what the viewer's encountered before. With both My Mind and Me and Stutz, Gomez and Hill present those with mental health issues as people who confront challenges but, in contrast to popular perceptions of mental illness, aren’t violent and remain contributing members of society.
  • Media consumers must feel positively toward the media figure who presents this new information, as most of the viewers who watch My Mind and Me or Stutz likely do.


Although there isn’t a great deal of research on the way parasocial contact helps reduce the stigma associated with mental health struggles, one investigation provides evidence that this can make a difference.

In the study, participants’ social distance and negative stereotypes of those with bipolar disorder were significantly reduced following exposure to a TV or magazine interview in which pop star Demi Lovato discusses their bipolar disorder.

Lovato has been open about their struggles with both bipolar disorder and addiction and has made several documentaries for YouTube that portrayed the challenges they've faced including Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated and Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil. This study suggests that celebrities can influence people to reconsider their stereotypes of people with mental illnesses.

Similarity

Parasocial bonds aren’t the only means through which celebrity disclosures of mental health can change people’s perceptions. Hoffner notes there are other kinds of responses that people can have that will make an impact.

For example, “if you perceive yourself as similar to someone you can also sometimes identify with them, see things through their eyes, see their experiences as relevant to you because you feel similar to them,” Hoffner explains. “People who… perceive themselves as similar to public figures can experience a stronger impact.”

Do Celebrity Disclosures of Mental Health Issues Affect People the Same Way?

Not all celebrity disclosures of mental health will impact people positively and not all celebrity disclosures will impact people in the same way. Hoffner observes that some public figures aren't well-liked and some don't disclose their mental health issues in ways that people will accept and embrace.

“Sometimes you'll see circumstances where people are caught in some unethical behavior or [another scandal]. And it may be true that it was related to mental health, but sometimes they might blame a mental health issue for their bad behavior and that can increase stigma.” Hoffner explains. “There will also be situations where public figures with very negative reputations disclose mental illness and that could potentially contribute to stigma, especially if it confirms already existing stereotypes.”

Gayle Stever, PhD

Whenever we're struggling with something and we see other people on the same path, regardless of their life's circumstance, then I think it's helpful.

— Gayle Stever, PhD

On the other hand, as Stever notes, “there’s no one size fits all” when it comes to celebrity disclosures of mental health. “People are going to look for help in a way that makes sense to them, and in a way that they can relate to…. So if… I'm a fan of Selena Gomez… and I'm thinking, well, she can cope that way, maybe I can cope this way. But it's the choice the person makes to turn to a celebrity and meet a need, which we each are going to do based on our own self insight.”

As a result, documentaries like Stutz and My Mind and Me, may have a powerful impact on some people and minimal impact on others. However, both Hoffner and Stever agree that celebrity disclosures of mental health concerns are generally positive. “Whenever we're struggling with something and we see other people on the same path, regardless of their life's circumstance, then I think it's helpful,” Stever says.

Hollywood vs Reality

While Stutz and My Mind and Me take very different approaches to the topic of mental health, with Stutz focusing on therapy and My Mind and Me focusing on Gomez’s personal struggles, Stever and Hoffner believe both approaches can have a positive impact because both Hill and Gomez present their mental health challenges in relatable ways.

So although every person who learns about Hill’s or Gomez’s issues won’t react the same way, on the whole, their documentaries will be beneficial to viewers because they can help normalize the experience of mental health issues for those who are also struggling while destigmatizing mental illness in general.

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By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.