Rich, famous, vulnerable

People in showbiz are particularly vulnerable to mental health problems as they are under constant pressure to remain glamorous

Celebrities are often pushed to anxiety, loneliness and depression by the very nature of their work: they have to look glamorous, cheerful and fashionable all the time.

The past decade saw many celebrities losing their lives to depression, leaving the entertainment industry and their fans in shock. The latest shocker in India was the suicide of Kushal Punjabi, an actor who was suffering from depression, accentuated by the process of separating from his wife and financial crisis.

When news of a celebrity suicide breaks, many ask the question: ‘They had everything, why would they want to kill themselves?’

Money and fame are no insurance against mental illness, say experts.

Nelson Vinod Moses, founder, Suicide Prevention India Foundation, says suicide can never be attributed to a single factor, but research suggests 60 per cent of all suicides have an underlying mental health trigger. 

“Celebrities are always in the public eye; they are constantly under pressure to perform and stay relevant. The projection of their image creates stress between the real person and the person represented to the public,” he says.

More often than not, celebrities shy away from talking about their mental illness for fear of how the media and fans might view them.

Deepika Padukone is one of the rare celebrities to come out and talk about depression in India.

“Most celebs don’t want to risk their public image, because it creates a dent in their brand unless their brand is strong enough to withstand it. In Deepika’s case, she spoke about it at the peak of her career. Instead of denting her brand, it has further enhanced it,” he says.

When celebrities are unable to go out and seek help, they go through a lot more. “The highs that come with being a celebrity---the recognition, adulation, popularity and money---add to it. We should not look at suicide through the lens of financial or marital problems. It is a combination of all of this,” says Nelson.

American actor Owen Wilson attempted suicide at the peak of his career and was subsequently treated for depression. He later spoke about it.

Rampant in India

According to a study by Lancet Psychiatry, one in seven people in India has a mental health problem and one in four at some point need professional help.

Celebrities are observed and judged every day, and that affects their mental health, says Neha Cadabam, consultant psychologist and executive director, Cadabams Hospitals.

“Today, with social media, things have got uglier. Trolling has become the new cool. If a celebrity wore a new dress and forgot to remove the tag, she gets trolled for it. If they don’t comment on a national issue, they are trolled. With this, there is a constant thought of self-worth — am I good enough? Am I worthy? It is not just judgment by others but also a lot of self-judgment that they go through,” she explains. Sometimes it could also create an identity crisis, with celebrities wondering if their true self is only what they are behind closed doors.

Constant exposure means they are wary about their weaknesses being seen as vulnerable. “They are fear people will know they are not good enough. It is difficult for them,” she says.

Social media tension

Social media is getting flak for the paranoia it creates. As Neha says, “It’s a culture of constant and instant updates and exposure.” 

So even if celebrities get help for mental illness, they are apprehensive about how it might affect their career.

People in the limelight have the power to influence their fans and admirers. “When American actor Robin Williams committed suicide, the suicide rate had gone up. The same pattern continued when chef Anthony Bourdain and designer Kate Spade lost their lives this way,” Neha observes. 

“When you see a celeb doing something like this, it’s like a trendsetter, even with something as intense as suicide. When celebrities do it, they normalise it,” she says.

After Deepika revealed she had battled depression, many young girls went to clinics saying they were depressed when they were just sad. However, Deepika had made it easier for girls to seek help, says Neha.

Symptoms of depression

It could be something noticeable or behaviour, actions and even in physical appearance. Symptoms include irritability, loss of interest in activities that they earlier enjoyed, social isolation, sudden weight loss or gain, substance abuse, general low mood, recklessness, troubled sleep. It can also be a combination of all of this.

Recognising suicide signs

Eight out of 10 people who are suicidal give out verbal and non-verbal signs. Recognising these signs, reaching out and persuading them to get help is key to saving a life. Removing the stigma around mental illness is equally important.

Celebs who lived to talk about it...

American actor Owen Wilson was at the top of his career when he suffered from depression. He attempted suicide by consuming sleeping pills and slitting his wrist. However, he survived and has since taken professional help.

Actor Drew Barrymore attempted suicide at the age of 14. She became a star at a young age and most part of her life was about drinking, parties and drugs. She made multiple visits to rehab centres. She survived and went on to have a successful career.

Elton John, 72, attempted suicide in 1969. His second attempt was in 1975 when he swallowed 60 Valium pills. His song ‘Someone saved my life tonight’ is about his suicide attempts and recovery.

Signs include

Talking of death; Giving away possessions; Saying goodbye; Thinking everyone is better off without them; Sudden interest in religion; Social isolation; Depression; Change in moods; Trouble sleeping; Substance abuse; Posting dark memes, links, poetry on social media; Drastic change in physical appearance

— Nelson, Suicide Prevention India Foundation


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