By Sharing Their Own Struggles, Celebs Help Teens Tear Down Mental Health Stigma - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34, and reaching out can save lives.

When Drew Voris posted a photo of himself meeting Lady Gaga at an event promoting mental health on Instagram this summer, a direct message popped into his inbox from one of his classmates. She told Voris she was thinking of taking her own life and asked if he could call her. “We talked through it. I ended up meeting with her and getting her to someone who could help,” Voris says.

Voris’ classmate found the lifeline she needed.

Suicides have increased by more than 30 percent since 1999, making it the second leading cause of death (after accidental death) for people ages 10 to 34, according to the National Institutes of Health. Three-fourths of all mental illnesses begin before age 20, according to the World Health Organization.

Many struggling teens are looking for help online. In fact, a 2018 study by Hopelab and Well Being Trust found that 90 percent of depressed young adults turn to the internet for research and support. What resonates most?

75 percent of young teens seeking information online about depression said they were looking for personal anecdotes from people who had suffered in the past.

Voris, 18, was uniquely qualified to help his classmate: He had just completed an eight-hour course in teen mental health first aid through a pilot program at his high school in Springfield, Missouri. The program, run by the National Council for Behavioral Health and supported by Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation and Well Being Trust, “teaches teens how to recognize the symptoms of a mental health crisis, particularly suicide, and reach out to a trusted adult if necessary,” says Maya Enista Smith, Born This Way’s executive director.

But Lady Gaga does more than just lend her famous name. The megastar has spoken openly about her personal battles with trauma, self-harm and suicidal ideation — actions that may be a key factor in giving teens the courage to speak up and reach out.

Helping hand, support, care or charity concept

Celebrities speaking up about mental health challenges through interviews, social media and their art may encourage individuals to discuss their own mental health challenges.

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“Research has shown stigma is broken down best when we have contact with someone who we know has a mental illness,” says Anne Ferrari, a psychology professor at Mercy College. “We can perceive a mental illness in a lot of scary, dangerous ways until we actually see a person who has a mental illness, and then we feel differently.”

To see just how great an impact celebrities make on mental health stigma, Ferrari conducted an experiment in her abnormal psychology class, dividing the class into two groups. One group received lessons on symptoms of different mental health challenges. The other group learned about the same mental illnesses — but this time, Ferrari mentioned celebrities who had talked candidly about their experience with the condition. She used stars’ YouTube videos and song lyrics as well. 

At the beginning and end of each class, she gave students a questionnaire designed to measure how much stigma they felt toward other people with mental illness and how much stigma they felt toward getting help for themselves. She found that using celebrities’ stories helped “greatly reduce” both kinds of stigma for students. 

And luckily, stars are increasingly speaking out. A decade ago, the National Alliance on Mental Illness says it struggled to find celebrities willing to speak out; the organization now counts more than 20 celebrity influencers. Demi Lovato has spoken up about living with bipolar disorder, while Nicki Minaj and Halle Berry have shared their battles with suicidal thoughts. And Adele, Kristen Bell and Miley Cyrus have shared their struggles with depression. 

While researchers say there is no singular moment when it became acceptable for celebrities to share their struggles, the flip side of a picture-perfect Instagram culture may be the ability to shape and share unfiltered personal narratives. The prevalence of mental health disorders in the general population, alongside the rise of advocacy organizations devoted to shattering stigma, may also have created this change.

“Celebrities are coming forward and saying, ‘Yes, I have a problem with this,’ more and more of them, and it’s not backfiring,” Ferrari says. “No one is turning away from them. In fact, people like them more as a result, and this is really influencing our young people.”

Kristen Bell speaks up about her depression and anxiety, telling audiences she sometimes doesn’t want to get out of bed.

For Voris, the response to the Lady Gaga photo made him realize just how impactful it was to speak up about mental health — both online and in real life. “It raised an awareness in me that mental health is a really normal thing and it’s OK to struggle with it. And it’s always OK to get help if you’re not OK.” 

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