The danger of a celebrity-centric mental health policy
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There has been an explosion in celebrities speaking out about their mental health challenges. This week Prince Harry talked about having recently come to grips with the emotional turmoil caused by having lost his mother in a car accident when he was 12. Lady Gaga has talked about her PTSD caused by rape when younger.  Kendall Jenner and Emma Stone have both talked about their anxiety.

There is no doubt that they are speaking out for all the right reasons, but Congress and the public should understand that what they have in common — celebrity and mental health issues — is not as important as what they don’t have in common. None have schizophrenia, perhaps the most devastating disorder, nor severe bipolar that is resistant to treatment. That is where we should be focusing our policies. Demi Lavato, Catherine Zeta Jones and Carrie Fisher have talked about their own bipolar disorder, but they all eventually responded to treatment and achieved great success.

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None of these celebrities are representative of the most seriously mentally ill who lead a hellish existence under lice-infested clothes, sleeping in cardboard boxes, unable to work, unable to get treatment, and often shunned by those within the mental health industry because will never be a poster-child for recovery. While the media and Congress correctly tout the celebrities for being brave role models, the psychotic are ignored. These celebrities are likely part of the 18 percent of American adults with some form of mental illness, but are not likely part of the 4-5 percent who have serious mental illness that dramatically and significantly impedes their ability to function.

 

The 4 percent with serious mental illness, rarely end up in Hollywood, except to rummage through dumpsters for food: 140,000 seriously mentally ill are homeless, 392,000 are in jails and prisons, and 3 million get zero treatment. We should solve those problems but attention to them is largely drowned out in the wave of publicity generated by stories about celebrities who “came out.” Their celebrity status has gained their utterances on mental illness miles of ink and bestowed on them the title of “Sage Authority.” They get invites to testify in front of Congress, appear at mental health industry events and generally live a privileged life.

Alternatively, the stories of the low-functioning seriously mentally ill rarely get told except after an act of headline grabbing carnage, often caused by their refusing treatment or inability to get it. Violence is not an uncommon story, because as I found out when researching my book, “Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill” the ability to get care has become inversely related to severity of illness. The high-functioning have easy access to government-funded “mental wellness” programs while the seriously ill are denied access to doctors, medications, hospitalization, psychotherapy and rehabilitation programs. As a result of this denial, there are now 10 times as many people with serious mental illness incarcerated as hospitalized.

My research for “Insane Consequences” found that the story of the most seriously mentally ill often has to be told by their parents or other relatives, because the seriously ill are locked in jails, prisons, psychiatric wards and their own psychosis.

Rikki Lake told the story of her ex-husband who had bipolar and killed himself as being “like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He thought he could fly. He thought he could cure cancer with his hands. It was horrific — he just wasn’t the person I had been with for four years.” She talked of having to watch his deterioration, “I’ve learned how powerless we are with this disease. ... I had money, I had the knowledge, I had the resources, I brought him to the doctor. We tried medications. It didn’t work.”

Likewise, Glenn Close talks about her sister Jessie’s battle with untreated bipolar and Jessie has talked about her own illness and her son Calen’s battle with schizophrenia. They’ve both become brilliant advocates. Ditto with Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy who talks about his personal battle with treated bipolar but still advocates for the sickest. When talking about his mother, he has spoken out in favor of more hospital beds and easier access to involuntary commitment when needed. Those are important subjects the celebrities rarely mention when only talking about their own experiences

While I appreciate these celebrities for talking out and bringing attention to the subject, I fear that the story of the most seriously ill, those who need help the most, is getting lost in the celebrity feeding frenzy.

DJ Jaffe is author of “Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill” and Executive Director of Mental Illness Policy Org., a non-partisan think-tank on serious mental illness.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.