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By T-Kea Blackman
As the conversation of mental health and illness gradually comes to the forefront of national attention, the month of May is the perfect time to raise awareness. For some reason, we tend to stigmatize mental illness and do not see it as a “real” or life-threatening illness like cancer, AIDS, or diabetes. Mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, depression, social anxiety, and schizophrenia are not made up or less important than any other disease.
In fact, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million (about 18%)—experience mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and unfortunately, we perceive people with a mental illness as just “crazy.”
However, what we fail to realize is that people with mental illness are more than the individuals walking down the street talking to themselves; mental illness affects everyday, functional people, and even celebrities.
In fact, the thought of a celebrity battling a mental illness might seem far-fetched for some. We tend to believe celebrities are unstoppable and perfect because they have money, power, and fame. We judge celebrities from the outside looking in and do not see them when the cameras are off and they too have to manage their emotions, thoughts, and illnesses like the average person.
We love to see the hilarious, sassy, and powerful characters that Jenifer Lewis portrays in movies and shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Think Like A Man, and Black-ish. But after hiding her 17-year battle with bipolar disorder and 10 years of being on medication, Lewis spoke about her mental illness on Exhale TV.
“What it is, is that you want to do it without the meds,” Lewis says. “You want to get off and say, ‘I’m healthy. I got wheat-grass and I am eating good. I can do this on my own,’ and then you throw the meds away. Don’t do that.”
Lewis also stated that her illness was triggered by the death of her father, but she encouraged people to love themselves.
The exact cause of bipolar disorder is unknown, but a combination of genetics, environment, and altered brain structure and chemistry can play a role. Bipolar disorder is an episode of mood swings ranging from depressive lows to manic highs.
Manic episodes might include symptoms such as high energy, reduced need for sleep, and loss of connection to reality. Symptoms of depressive episodes might include low energy, low motivation, and loss of interest in daily activities. Mood episodes last days to months at a time and might also be associated with suicidal thoughts.
Disney Channel superstar, actress, and singer Selena Gomez struggles with anxiety, panic attacks, and depression disorders in addition to dealing with lupus.
Panic disorder is an urge of overwhelming fear and anxiety. Your heart pounds and you can’t breathe. You might even feel like you’re dying or going crazy. If left untreated, panic attacks can lead to panic disorder and other problems, according to helpguide.org.
Depression and anxiety disorders are different, but people with depression often experience symptoms similar to those of an anxiety disorder, such as nervousness, irritability, and problems sleeping and concentrating. But each disorder has its own causes and its own emotional and behavioral symptoms.
During her speech at the American Music Awards, Gomez talks about her personal struggle with anxiety and depression.
“I had to stop. Cause I had everything, and I was absolutely broken inside,” Gomez confesses. “And I kept it all together enough to where I would never let you down, but I kept it too much together, to where I let myself down. I don’t want to see your bodies on Instagram, I want to see what’s in here [puts a hand on heart]. I’m not trying to get validation, nor do I need it anymore.”
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, many people who develop depression have a history of an anxiety disorder earlier in life. There is no evidence that one disorder causes the other, but clear evidence suggests that many people suffer from both disorders.
The lesson that we learn as children—don’t judge a book by its cover—is necessary when we look at people, celebrities included, with mental illness. It is important to think before you speak, learn about mental illness, and offer compassion for those who deal with these illnesses.
No amount of money, power, or fame can make you happy or protect you from a mental illness. But what we can also learn from this is that people with mental illness are not alone, and most do not allow their illness to stop them from living and achieving their dreams.
If you are feeling suicidal, please call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255. If you are depressed, struggling mentally, or know someone who is, visit National Alliance on Mental Illness or the Anxiety and Depression Association of America to find a therapist in your community as well as other resources.