Celebrities are being more candid about mental health. Here’s how it can help us all be more empathetic.
The New York Times/The Lily
By Taylor Trudon
October 13, 2020
Refusing to see celebrities as ‘real’ people is to risk dehumanizing them — and others — altogether
Emily Ratajkowski has 26.8 million followers on Instagram. A cursory scroll of the supermodel’s account reveals a grid filled with bikini-clad photos on the beach, magazine covers bearing her doe-eyed face and shots of her hanging out with her German shepherd in Central Park. So if you happened to miss her viral essay in the Cut last month, you might have assumed that Ratajkowski was another celebrity living her best life, immune to the everyday problems of the world.
Of course, that’s not at all the case. Ratajkowski’s vulnerable, devastating Cut account is one about power, consent and, ultimately, her struggle to reclaim her own image. It is also one that was met with an outpouring of support on social media, a stark reminder that, despite how glamorous her life may appear, Ratajkowski is a real person with real pain. But on most days, social media can make this easy to forget — for reasons easy enough to determine.
“We live in a materialistic and judgmental world,” explained Karla Ivankovich, a Chicago-based therapist. “As such, people are viewed in terms of hierarchical placement. Celebs are often viewed as being on top of this hierarchy, in a place envied by others. When this perception exists, it is difficult for those below to perceive celebrities as experiencing the same and similar life events because they have desires of reaching the top of that hierarchy where they perceive all of their ‘problems’ to be solved.”
Dylan Gee, a psychology professor at Yale University, agrees. The social-media-fueled mind-set that celebrities “have it all,” or “have it easy,” can make their mental health struggles seem less valid or imply that they must have the resources to cope with any stressors, Gee said.
Chrissy Teigen, like Ratajkowski, is challenging those narratives. The television personality, model and best-selling cookbook author has long posted candid windows into her life with John Legend and their children, but on Sept. 30, she shared emotionally shattering news: They had lost their baby.
“We are shocked and in the kind of deep pain you only hear about, the kind of pain we’ve never felt before,” Teigen began her post on Instagram. “We were never able to stop the bleeding and give our baby the fluids he needed, despite bags and bags of blood transfusions. It just wasn’t enough.”
And it wasn’t the first time she had received that kind of reaction.
“I was struggling hard with some deep dark Internet/real life days,” Teigen wrote in an early-September Instagram caption alongside her new Marie Claire cover. “I have lived a life begging for people to like me and think I’m cool and funny and their friend, and bam, it felt like everyone fucking hated me.”
That kind of emotional response is understandable, according to Gee.
“Some might consider being a celebrity a choice, which could create a sense that they somehow chose that life, including the challenges that come with it,” she said. “There is also the common misconception that money buys happiness, but we know from many psychological studies that this is not the case.”
In fact, wealth comes with its own set of problems. Britney Spears is fighting to be released of her conservatorship, an arrangement she has been under since 2008, following struggles with mental illness. As a result, the pop star for years has had no legal control when it comes to her $59 million fortune, which is overseen by her father and an attorney. Droves of fans believe Spears is being manipulated, sparking the #FreeBritney movement.
Kim Kardashian West has made a point of shining a spotlight on mental illness among celebrities. In July, the reality TV star and beauty mogul came to the defense of her husband, Kanye West, who has bipolar disorder, after the rapper posted a series of erratic tweets. Kardashian West later issued a statement on Instagram requesting “compassion and empathy” from the media and the public.
“We as a society talk about giving grace to the issue of mental health as a whole, however we should also give it to the individuals who are living with it in times when they need it the most,” she wrote.
Indeed, the consequence of refusing to see celebrities as “real” people is to risk dehumanizing them altogether. And when we dehumanize them, experts say, we cast doubt on the validity of not just their experiences but also the experiences of others.
“Engaging in this behavior then results in all people with similar experiences being denied the ability to assert their story for fear of limited acceptance,” Ivankovich said. “This is classic fear of rejection and creates a stigma only serving to discourage others’ personal similar truth.”
According to Ivankovich and Gee, there’s one way, above all, to prevent that spiral from happening: empathy.
“We know that empathy is not fixed,” Gee said. “That is, we can practice empathy and increase our capacity to empathize with others, particularly people who might be different than ourselves. Just knowing that empathy can be learned is important and can motivate people to work on it.”
To increase those reserves, Gee recommends a few strategies: “resisting the urge to minimize others’ feelings, learning more about their experiences and perspectives, and practicing stepping into someone else’s shoes.”
Empathy is a tool, incidentally, that Teigen knows well. In one August Twitter thread on opioid addiction, under a post by former NBA player Rex Chapman, Teigen got into a back-and-forth with another user, calling for compassion for those struggling with drug abuse.
“I have addicts in my family,” Teigen disclosed in one response.
Then, in her next, in a sentiment that now, perhaps, resonates even more: “I just really want more empathy in the world.”