(If you feel like you may have mental health issues or know someone in distress, please reach out to them with kindness and call these numbers of local emergency services, helplines, and mental health NGOs)
“It’s about time Virat Kohli retired.”
“Please leave the Indian Cricket Team.”
“That’s why we believe there won’t be another Sachin.”
These were just some of the tweets from the public after news of Virat Kohli battling anxiety and depression were out. In an interview with a prominent publication, the Indian cricket star candidly spoke about how he wasn’t comfortable in his own skin and felt lonely at times.
"I have personally experienced times when even in a room full of people who support and love me, I felt alone, and I am sure that this is a feeling that a lot of people can relate to. So, take out time for yourself and reconnect with your core self."Virat Kohli, International Indian Cricketer
While some of his fans did support him and empathise with him, not everyone took kindly to this news. And this brings to light a very important issue about how people expect celebrities and sports people to always be at the top of their game, perform and be perfect at all times.
A Struggle-Since Decades
Tanu Choksi, Psychologist & Counsellor, Associate Fellow and Supervisor in RE- CBT from The Albert Ellis Institute, New York recalls the mental health struggle of the renowned actress Parveen Babi who was diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia in the early 80s.
Choksi narrates, “Babi redefined what a Bollywood actress was and though she was a prolific artist, she is only remembered for her media-created ‘madness’. She was incarcerated at an airport and literally put in an asylum, and by the time she returned to India, she was a different person.”
She died starved, alone, and demonised, largely due to an insensitive coverage of her health issues.
Though 1980s Bollywood seems like a lifetime ago, this is an example of a public struggle of a very private illness, and a case in which both, the public and the press, made her life hell.
“In this narrative, the celebrity’s struggle was made public without her consent, and she was demonised for it,” Choksi comments.
Today, the narrative is different, but the threats are still the same. Celebrities come out with their stories of struggle more often, but it can still make a 'spectacle' by the media. Nameless, faceless trolls on social media shame stars for being vulnerable, with barely any consequence.
As Choksi rightly points out, “Sushant Singh Rajput became the face of mental issues in Bollywood, when he died by suicide in 2020. Though the discussion around mental health among Bollywood stars had already begun, Sushant Singh Rajput being one who discussed his battle with depression openly, his death came as a turning point in the discourse. His death came as a shock and a reminder that these are not people who can remain untouched, and sometimes, they lose their battle too.”
The Problem With Perfection
The discussion of celebrities being open about their mental health has seen a trajectory, but along the way, there have been certain triggers that act as a catalyst to the narrative.
Celebrities have been struggling with mental health issues, like the rest of us, for decades, but in recent times, they are being more open and transparent about the struggles they face.
Choksi shares her view saying, “Mental health issues, including disorders like depression or anxiety, are battled quietly. Unlike physical ailments, they are not very apparent at first. When celebrities, who are often glamorised and put on a pedestal, speak about their issues like you and me, it’s a reminder that they are human beings who suffer too.”
Manavi Khurana, Founder & Counselling Psychologist, Karma Centre for Counselling & Wellbeing, believes that celebrities need to be taken off the superhuman, have-it-all-figured pedestal and looked at as regular human beings who deal with mental health challenges.
As consumers of their content, we must refrain from engaging in comparisons of problems as contexts happen to differ. We need more authentic portrayals of human experiences that social media platforms are often unable to offer.Manavi Khurana, Founder & Counselling Psychologist, Karma Centre for Counselling & Wellbeing
Choksi points out that celebrities tend to give off the aura that they can remain untouched; they are surrounded by glamour, and this adds to the almost inhuman presence they have.
We often hear narratives of people “having it all” or having no reason to struggle mentally just because they have money, looks, success, fame and/or material wealth—which, of course, is not actually representative of reality.
“Therefore, I imagine that seeing these revered figures share relatable concerns can be an enlightening and humanising experience for the public. In the cases of high profile celebrities it also helps to reiterate that financial success and public acclaim do not exempt you from mental health concerns, which may help challenge the misconception often held in this respect,” says Khurana.
Encouraging More Conversations
A lot of mental health practitioners believe that celebrities talking about their own mental health struggles definitely helps normalise mental health difficulties and goes a long way in addressing the stigma and normalise conversations around mental health. Equity in mental health is absolutely necessary and celebrities or public figures are one way to achieve it as they have huge public influence.
"I believe that talking about personal experience like this not only builds awareness and normalises the discussion, but also reminds others going through a similar thing that they are not alone, and that no one is above asking for help and seeking therapy."Tanu Choksi, Psychologist & Counsellor, Associate Fellow and Supervisor, RE- CBT, The Albert Ellis Institute, New York
Khurana opines, “Despite the still existing stigma, there have been shifts in the face of mental health in this country and a considerable increase in openness towards psychology, even within the last decade. I can only speculate that celebrities may feel more comfortable sharing their truths with less fear that it will negatively impact their careers. After all they too are members of society and are often more dependent on public opinion to influence their careers and lives. I would like to believe that this coincides with their personal recognition of the power of their platforms in benefiting others facing the same or similar concerns.”
(Divya Naik is a psychologist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)