16 May What Do Oprah, Lady Gaga, and ‘The Rock’ Have in Common? They Want Kids in Distress to Know They’re Not Alone
Talking about abuse and mental illness used to be off limits. In recent years, though, many celebrities have tried to break that stigma in an effort to let their young fans know they’re not alone.
One of the first to break the taboos was talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who stunned her fans by revealing she had been sexually and physically abused as a child. “Anybody who has been verbally abused or physically abused will spend a great deal of their life rebuilding their esteem,” she later told one interviewer, adding that her biggest regret about her show was that “I wasn’t able to move the needle far enough on abuse in this country.”
Meanwhile, other celebrities have spoken out about their struggles with mental illness. These include the late Carrie Fisher, an actress and writer perhaps best known for her portrayal of Princess Leia in Star Wars and her semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge. She and singer Demi Lovato and Mariah Carey have all talked extensively about their battles with bipolar illness.
Others have followed suit: Stand-up comedian Margaret Cho reports she has wrestled with depression and obsessive thoughts; actress Gina Rodriguez has talked about her paralyzing anxiety disorder; singer Lady Gaga and actress Glenn Close have become mental health advocates for young people; and Lady Gaga (top image) created the Born This Way foundation in part to help youth struggling with mental illness. “They would tell me their stories, and many of them were very dark,” she told Billboard magazine about her young fans. “As I began to care for them and to see myself in them, I felt I had to do something to remind kids they’re not alone. When they feel isolated, that’s when it leads to suicide.”
And Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson also revealed on Twitter that he has suffered from depression since the time he helped rescue his mother from a suicide attempt when he was 15. “Depression never discriminates,” wrote Johnson, 45, in 2018. “Took me a long time to realize it but the key is to not be afraid to open up. Especially us dudes have a tendency to keep it in. You’re not alone.”
Rapper Kendrick Lamar knows the price of keeping everything inside. In 2015, he revealed his fame was accompanied by severe depression and suicidal thoughts. Some of his lyrics were later used in an ad campaign by Kaiser Permanente to urge people with depression to seek help.
Prince Harry of Great Britain even broke royal tradition in disclosing how valuable it was for him to see a therapist to deal with the “chaos” of his late twenties. He has since lobbied for better mental health care for veterans.
ACEs and mental illness
Not all mental illness stems from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as abuse and neglect, of course, but there is a strong link between the two. If you were emotionally abused in childhood, for example, you have a higher risk of developing a depression-related disorder in later life. You also have a higher risk of substance abuse disorders and other mental health problems.
For teens and college students struggling with mental illness or childhood, learning about celebrities who’ve had similar experiences can be freeing.
“Looking at [other people who had bipolar disorder] gave me a sense of I’m not alone when times are tough,” 20-year-old Charlotte Horton of the University of Cincinnati, who was particularly moved by the struggles of Fisher and Demi Lovato, told the LA Times. “I can become successful. I can make my own story rather than just let my mental illness control my life.”
There’s still a lot of shame about depression and abuse, which makes it hard for teens to ask for help. But as actresses and women in every walk of life have joined the #MeToo movement, parents and teachers can help empower girls (and boys) to be part of the solution. ACEs screening, which asks about physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, among other things, is another way to help break the silence.
What parents can do
Recognize warning signs. An irritable or sad mood for days; lack of energy; loss of interest in friends or family; trouble sleeping; lack of energy and focus; and a “flat” demeanor: All these can be signs of depression. Other personality and behavior changes may be sign of trauma, substance use or another mental illness.
Get a medical check-up. A physical illness may be causing these symptoms.
Give your child some undivided attention. Create daily ‘anchoring’ rituals your kids can count on, including family dinners and walks or trips where they get a chance to talk with you one on one. Make sure your kids get enough exercise, sleep, and a healthy diet as well.
Consider counseling. Counseling and other kinds of mental health treatment can be extremely helpful for children going through a rough time. If you’ve experienced trauma as a child or adult, this kind of support may also help you.
Don’t feel embarrassed about getting help. Nearly 44 million Americans are affected by mental illness each year, so you and your children have plenty of company. Lisa Nicole Carson, an African-American actress who has starred in “ER,” “Ally McBeal,” and feature films but dropped from sight for a while to deal with her bipolar illness, has urged everyone not to be afraid to see a doctor or therapist for mental health problems. “We just have to take our mental health as seriously as we do the physical,” she told Essence magazine. “I’m now stronger and ready for what’s next.”
If your child talks about self-harm or suicide, seek professional help immediately. This is a clear and urgent sign of distress.
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