On my bedroom wall there’s a picture of Lili Reinhart looking beautiful in Betty Cooper pink, contrasted with a self-congratulatory “Didn’t have a mental breakdown” sticker. I bought the sticker as a childish reward while trying to lower my anxiety at Dollar Tree, and it’s weird now to see it next to Reinhart, someone who so excellently and candidly communicates her trials with mental health. “I didn’t learn about depression or anxiety at school,” she told V Magazine in January. “So when I had to go to my parents to say, ‘I need help, I need to go to therapy,’ I felt like this weird, messed up kid. And I wasn’t, but I felt that way.”
That relatable fear speaks to the importance of talking frankly about anxiety, and Reinhart’s not the only female celebrity who’s been vocal. Today, Selena Gomez, who has publicly spoken about her struggles with anxiety and depression in the past, was hospitalized after suffering a panic attack. And in recent weeks, Emma Stone, Gisele Bündchen, and Serena Williams (to name a few) have lent their voice to this discussion about mental health.
This conversation couldn’t come at a better time. For one thing, it’s hard not to feel stressed as a woman right now. Our current political and technological climate is marked by a sense of hopelessness and end-of-days despair. Just look to the disturbing rise in triggers for post traumatic stress disorder following the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearing. And beyond societal factors, anxiety disorders do tend to be somewhat gendered: One 2016 study published in the journal Brain and Behavior revealed women to be nearly twice as likely as men to develop an anxiety disorder. According to the study authors, this could be due to biological factors (like the differences in brain chemistry and hormone fluctuations) or how women deal with stress compared to men.
One 2016 study published in the journal Brain and Behavior revealed women to be nearly twice as likely as men to develop an anxiety disorder.
Olivia Remes, the lead author of that paper, frequent TED speaker, and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, sees this movement towards more transparency as a good thing. “A lot more people are talking about mental health and anxiety now than they used to, say, 10 years ago,” she says. “There’s definitely been a change for the better. There are more television programs, podcasts, radio shows, and newspaper articles discussing it, and many celebrities are coming forward and saying that they are suffering from it too.” All of these things add up to a greater awareness of the disorders and their symptoms and helps remove the taboo associated with asking for help.
Likewise, people who identify with the mental health struggle can learn the ways that stars are coping, and even get a little inspired. Finding a sense of purpose, for example, has been shown to help anxiety-sufferers, and two Oscar-winning women could vouch for that. Jennifer Lawrence’s anxieties emerged in her tweens, and it was only after discovering her passion that she found an escape. “I was having trouble at school and I had a lot of social anxieties…and acting was the one thing that made the anxiety go away. I didn’t feel good about myself until I discovered acting and how happy it made me feel,” she told Esperanza in August.
Stone, who has been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and has suffered panic attacks since she was a child, was also able to calm her overactive mind with acting lessons. “With improv, I learned I could take all of these big feelings and really listen in the moment and use all of my associative brain that still wakes me up in the middle of the night…to be useful to my job,” she said. Both women are also up front about how they’ve seen success using therapy and medication to seek peace, and that every day is still a battle.
“Sometimes people who have never had mental health problems think these issues are ‘all in your head.’ Anxiety is not ‘in your head,’ it’s a serious condition that can lead to early death, diabetes, and heart disease. It needs to be taken seriously.” —Olivia Remes, PhD candidate
Finding a new normal doesn’t happen overnight, but why suffer in silence in the first place? In a heart-breaking-but-not-surprising revelation, it could be that women stay quiet because they’re afraid they won’t be taken seriously. When we listen to women recount their experiences, it’s common to see words like “shame and “guilt” recycled. “I think a facilitator of stigma is misinformation,” Remes says. “Sometimes people who have never had mental health problems think these issues are ‘all in your head’—but saying this just perpetuates misinformation. Anxiety is not ‘in your head,’ it’s a serious condition that can lead to early death, diabetes, and heart disease. It needs to be taken seriously.”
This recalls Bündchen’s summation of her anxiety: “I had a wonderful position in my career, I was very close to my family, and I always considered myself a positive person, so I was really beating myself up. Like, ‘Why should I be feeling this?’ I felt like I wasn’t allowed to feel bad,” she told People. “I felt powerless. Your world becomes smaller and smaller, and you can’t breathe, which is the worst feeling I’ve ever had. I actually had the feeling of, ‘If I just jump off my balcony, this is going to end, and I never have to worry about this feeling of my world closing in.'”
Bündchen’s harrowing account reminds us that mental health issues don’t discriminate. On the flip side, it’s hard not to consider this: While female celebrities have stressors incredibly unique to the pressures of fame, they also have better access to (and money for) mental health resources. Now, consider that women living in deprived areas of England were over 60 percent more likely to have anxiety than those in affluent areas, according to a 2017 study by the University of Cambridge. Those women working three part-time jobs don’t have the health insurance for therapy or the time to search for purpose They’re too busy focusing on survival.
Consequently, I’ve seen that mental health neglect happen with my peers: my friend cleaning her apartment in order to retain a sense of control (an anxiety-quelling hack Lawrence shares), my roommate falling apart when she doesn’t have access to her much-needed Prozac. I’ve witnessed many loved ones pushing off therapy because it’s not something they can afford right now. And I’ve let my social anxiety manifest in some fun ways, including “not being able to answer a phone call” and “flying into a panic attack at the idea of talking to an acquaintance” (which, for the record, puts hard limits on a career in journalism).
So in a world where women try very hard to keep ourselves poised, in control, and Instagram-perfect, we’re slowly making room for the much messier reality.
But that doesn’t mean for a second that there isn’t validity in a celebrity’s anxiety struggles. In fact, it only reinforces how using their public platform to talk about it is a wonderful thing.
Celebrities are encouraged to be constantly “on” for their fanbase, but choosing to be honest and open about their battles can have enormous benefits. Creating that awareness helps normalize the experience, making it easier to get women in high-risk situations the resources and help that they need. The visibility is important, and even empowering. “It shows that even successful, beautiful women with seemingly perfect lives have mental health issues, too,” Remes says. “And that it’s perfectly okay to admit that you do and to seek help if you need it.”
So in a world where women try very hard to keep ourselves poised, in control, and Instagram-perfect, we’re slowly making room for the much messier reality. I didn’t have a mental breakdown today, but if I did, it doesn’t define me, and it doesn’t make me some messed up person. Thanks, Lili (and Emma, Serena, Gisele, Selena) for helping me see this.
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