The BBC today has an interesting article by Mark Brown of British mental health magazine One in Four: Do famous role models help or hinder? The context is that in Britain, charities and other advocates for people with mental illness have become fond of pointing to famous people, past and present, who suffered from a psychiatric disorder. The hope is that highlighting these 'role models' will fight stigma and provide hope. Winston Churchill and Steven Fry are especially popular in this regard. But, as Brown argues, these well-intentioned campaigns may not be so helpful -
"Look," they say. "Here is a person who has achieved so much. Do not lose heart, you too can overcome your disability if you follow their example." ...but where the inspirational figure is selected for us, and the gap between their life and ours is too great, the effect is not one of encouragement but of disillusionment - especially if their story is told in terms of personal qualities like bravery or persistence. Knowing that a famous person has the same impairment as you can be reassuring, but only in the vague way that hearing of a successful distant relative is reassuring. Most of us will never scale Everest, compete for our country at sports or have a showbiz career. This doesn't mean we've failed.
I agree. "He's got it, and so do you, so you can be like him" is perilously close to "He's got it, and so do you, so you should be like him - what's your excuse?" That said, I think some of these celebrity examples are useful, not as generic inspirations for 'the mentally ill' but as concrete answers to particular attitudes. Against the simplistic view that there's a single 'stigma of mental illness', I think there are many different stigmas and they have to be tackled separately. In the case of depression, the core stigma is that depression is a weakness, a moral failing. That depressed people are soft, weak, pitiable. This attitude is specific to depression - not even bipolar disorder is seen in the same way, let alone the other diagnoses. They have their own stigmas. Depression's is weakness. Now this is why Churchill is a good counterexample. Not just because he's famous or 'great', but because he was famously tough. He faced down Hitler. He was blood, sweat and tears. In the most famous photos of him (and they are famous, out of all his photos, because they correspond to the mental image) he is almost unsmiling - but never despairing. Just resolute. That he experienced depression undermines the myths surrounding that condition, in a way that an entertainer or other generic celebrity wouldn't.