In 2010, Amanda Bynes’ mental health started to become a major talking point in the media.
“It definitely isn’t fun when people diagnose you with what they think you are,” Bynes said in a revealing interview with Paper Magazine. “I know that my behaviour was so strange that people were just trying to grasp at straws for what was wrong.”
These “armchair psychiatrists,” as she called them, crop up whenever someone high profile starts acting in a way that seems out of the ordinary.
For example, during his recent trip to the White House to meet with Donald Trump, Kanye West said he had been recently misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder. Several publications have since discussed whether or not he could have the mental health condition.
Shainna Ali, a mental health clinician and advocate, says this is a problem.
“It’s just wrong,” she told INSIDER. “The problem with that in terms of reporting is that is just improper care in general. We’re jumping to conclusions. Unless you are the practitioner who has seen that individual, it’s irresponsible to make that jump.”
Also, a psychologist or therapist will only have seen tidbits of someone’s behaviour on television, just like everyone else.
We don’t have a saliva swab, a blood test, or a scan for most mental health conditions, so people can be diagnosed and misdiagnosed several times, and go through many different treatments before they start to make a recovery.
“If we’re willing to draw that conclusion quickly, then it makes it seem much more simple than it is,” said Ali. “And it’s not. Diagnosis is a complex process, and mental health recovery is also a complex process. If I can just read an article about Kanye and say ‘ah I’ve pegged it, it’s definitely this,’ then that makes it seem like it’s easier than it is.”
Self-diagnosis is dangerous
People aren’t always as upfront as they could be with their therapists and psychiatrists, either. Sometimes this is completely subconscious, because the human memory is imperfect.
“You may think you’re very forthcoming and you have all the intentions of being open, but you don’t realise what your brain is hiding,” Ali said. “And then there is memory – you don’t know what you’re omitting.”
This means jumping to a conclusion after reading five symptoms from a person’s behaviour is reductive. And there’s damaging consequences for that, Ali said. If she diagnoses someone from afar, then someone reading or watching may think they can self-diagnose too.
“And that can be dangerous,” she said. “Because self-diagnosis can cause someone to not get help – they can start to treat themselves, self medicate in ways, or it could be really scary for someone because it could be a misdiagnosis.”
Someone’s diagnosis is also not their entire personality. Neither should one person – celebrity or otherwise – be the poster child for certain mental conditions. Just because they have been open about a diagnosis, or have sought treatment, doesn’t mean they suddenly want to talk about it.
But when celebrities do talk about having bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, or borderline personality disorder, the breadth of those conditions gets ignored or minimised because it’s not being shown as much.
“We don’t see enough healthy cases – individuals coming forward and saying ‘yes I also have borderline personality disorder but I’m thriving as well, I’m seeking help and I’m doing fine,’” Ali said.
Looking for answers
Why are people so intent on diagnosing high profile figures? “That’s one of the things that baffles me until today,” said Ali. “But one of the answers I have is… that people want explanations.”
It’s not just celebrities that make headlines for their behaviour. In America, there have been over 300 mass shootings this year so far. By coming up with a reason for behaviour that seems strange, or even hurts and kills other people, the public may be more able to come to terms with it.
“The idea that someone would do something so horrible, people are just trying to understand,” Ali said. “I think that’s just part of human nature. There’s some comfort in trying to have an explanation.”
If we can point to a reason, like a diagnosis, then we can breathe a sigh of relief, Ali said. But it’s not that simple, because whatever the mental health condition, a person behaves the way they do for many different complicated reasons.
“It doesn’t really give us the comfort we think we need,” she said. “But we tend to long for a diagnosis to help us understand.”
This divide of whether you have a mental illness or you don’t also adds to damaging stigma, because it can be used to condescend or blame, and even discount anything else the person does.
“Because of that I see the person first – so you’re a person who might be a writer, a runner, a mother, who has borderline personality disorder,” Ali said. “It’s one part of who you are, it does not define who you are.”
Often the label is the priority, and becomes everything we infer about the person. But Ali said this means if we do this, “we lose the essence of that person.”
“I think when we lose that person, we use our ability to help the person,” she said. “So when we’re only seeing the diagnosis, we’re missing the true opportunity to help them.”
Highlighting the positive stories
Many high profile people have spoken publicly about their mental health, including Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, and Michael Phelps. Even Prince Harry gave a speech about his struggle with grief and depression.
But while these stories get attention, it’s still events like Kanye’s presidential visit that get attention. There are also those who don’t get better, like Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, whose stories were widely publicised.
“It can be scary and especially when we’re hearing about the worst case scenario which would be someone dying by suicide,” said Ali. “It can be worrisome if that happens for someone with this diagnosis.”
But you can get help and live a healthy life, she added, so it’s important to spread the message that suffering with a mental illness isn’t your fate.
We also need to keep improving the way we treat those who suffer with their mental health. If someone is physically unwell, they are showered with support and care. And while it’s improving, that still isn’t the universal case when it comes to being mentally ill.
“If someone is openly struggling, they’re in the middle of a struggle, or relapsing, then we need to give them support, that’s not the time for us to trivialise their concerns or poke fun at them,” Ali said.
In an article for Vox, Lux Alptraum wrote about how the actions of celebrities is often seen as fair game in the media.
“When their antics are deemed entertaining, they’re egged on and encouraged; when they turn self-destructive, they’re chided for not taking better care of themselves,” she wrote.
Rather than haranguing someone for their entertainment value, like the media did with Amanda Bynes several years ago and arguably is still doing with Kanye West now, there needs to be better education and awareness around mental health reporting, Ali said.
“A lot of that is encapsulated in asking questions, but also just educating yourself in general,” she said.
“And when [celebrities are] in a difficult place, that’s when we should be more supportive. We should be wishing them well, if anything.”
This piece by Lindsay Dodgson was first seen on ‘Business Insider Australia‘, 28 November 2018.