Merely a couple of decades ago, honest and vulnerable conversations about even mild mental health issues were few and far between. Now, even your bubbliest pop stars are joining the discussion, with varying levels of success; some of music’s biggest names such as Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande, and Adele have shared their experiences with depression and anxiety in their lyrics, in interviews or on social media. But is the increase in vulnerability helping or harming the community of people with mental illnesses?
Whilst an exposure to the internet may lead you to think of mental health issues as “millennial problems”, Mind (a mental health charity in England and Wales) state that the number of people dealing with these issues has not increased in recent years. Arguably, the reason that the topic of mental health is cropping up more is because people are becoming more comfortable discussing their issues, which can only be a good thing, right? Surely it’s time for the “shut up and get on with it” approach to be shown the door.
One thing that can be said about the mental health conversation is that it has dramatically improved in recent years, and this is reflected in the way that both the general public and the press reacts when a musician shows signs of struggling. Throughout the noughties, tabloids made a huge amount of money belittling Amy Winehouse every week, exploiting the struggle shown both in her personal life and her music in order to tear her down. The situation with Britney Spears in 2007 was similar; while there are still people out there who would want to ridicule a young musician for publically shaving her head (Katy Perry, I’m looking at you), it’s hard to imagine the coverage behind Spears’ “breakdown” being as brutal and unsympathetic if it was to happen today.
However, while things have certainly improved, and the openness of today’s pop stars has helped this, we still have a long way to go in terms of how we talk about mental health in mainstream media. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hugely helpful for Ariana Grande to share her struggles with anxiety or for Gary Barlow to talk about depression - discussing these problems in the mainstream can help remove the stigma around these issues and encourage others to reach out, and writing lyrics people can connect with can often carry them through hard times. But the way celebrities talk about mental health often simplifies problems that are potentially life threatening.
For many, overcoming poor mental health is going to take more than a song about how we all have bad days, or encouraging words from a singer who says they know how you feel. While relating to each other can help, it’s time for wealthy and powerful people (like musicians in the mainstream) to discuss how more people can get access to counselling, how to raise money for charities like Mind, how to make politicians actually listen so people with mental illnesses can get what they need.
We also desperately need to broaden the conversation, and acknowledge other health conditions than just anxiety and depression. Demi Lovato, for example, has been outspoken about her struggles with addiction, bulimia and bipolar disorder, educating people on problems that are still frequently misunderstood. It’s great that anxiety and depression are being discussed, but we need to stop claiming to care about mental health if we’re going to normalise some disorders whilst still giving the side-eye to people with drug addictions or schizophrenia. And while the burden of solving the mental health crisis shouldn’t necessarily fall on musicians, if they care as much as they appear to, they should be using their platforms to create some serious change.