Wrestling fandom, cheesy films, pop music and mental health have all featured prominently in my life since the 1990s, so I’ve been following with interest as social media reacts to public disclosures by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Mariah Carey about their mental health. I generally have a big problem with stereotypical, extreme or over-simplistic representations when it comes to celebrities and mental health in the media, even when the story is positive. Firstly, the rhetoric tends to be based around a journey complete or battle won, which isn’t reflective of most people’s experience of recovery. And the very media outlets who portray these stories as triumphant are also those who shame celebrities in the midst of mental health crises.
Even if the publication is not sensationalist and the celebrity well-meaning, the message that we need to ‘just talk’ about mental health often masks the issue of how inequalities impact on people’s experiences. For example, within many communities, talking about it and even seeking medical treatment might isolate the individual more than a mental health condition itself. And, even if we all start talking more openly, we are not rich celebrities who can afford to pay for private treatment – lack of services, not simply lack of talking, is a huge issue often ignored for the sake of PR opportunities.
Yet, despite all of this, I am finding it difficult to maintain my usual levels of cynicism. Dwayne Johnson and Mariah Carey have both opened up about the the ugly side of mental health which is absolutely necessary if we are serious about encouraging people to talk about it. Even in 2018 it is unusual to hear someone like ‘The Rock’ who we associate with stereotypical masculinity talking about ‘crying constantly’, challenging the damaging assumption that our gender should dictate how we deal with emotions. Both he and Mariah Carey spoke about dark thoughts, worries about their careers, family issues and continued episodes of illness, breaking away from the reductive narrative of ‘beating’ mental illness. Johnson emphasised adverse experiences in his childhood, including poverty and parental mental health difficulties, as causes of recurrent depression. Yes, mental health doesn’t discriminate – anyone can experience problems – but trauma, poverty and discrimination increase the risk.
When it came to recovery neither spoke of huge transformations but about everyday changes. For Dwayne Johnson, it was trying to have conversations with male friends, for Mariah Carey it was getting the right balance of medication, routine and being creative again. Most importantly for me – although they both had encouragement and reassurance for those with similar conditions – they did not hide the fact that they had things to get off their chest and did it for themselves. Mariah Carey was very explicit about deciding to be interviewed in order to finally unburden herself of fear of exposure and isolation. Dwayne Johnson was compelled to post about his difficulties after scenes from his new movie caused traumatic experiences to resurface. I think most of us can relate to fear of exposing our vulnerabilities or the need to express something uncomfortable in order to move on.
Of course, profits will be made. Nothing in the public eye at this level is going to be pure. But, in terms of the nature of the media and where we’re at with mental health awareness, it was probably about as real as it gets and maybe even a step forward. *Celebrates by searching classic Royal Rumbles on Youtube and singing into hairbrush*