Why celebrity accounts of depression are vital

On his 2008 track, The Prayer, Kid Cudi rapped, "Baby how I dream of being free since my birth. Cursed, but the demons I confronted would disperse."

If they didn't know before, audiences now understand the struggle he was seeking to be liberated from.

In an open letter published Tuesday, Cudi, born Scott Mescudi, revealed that he checked himself into rehab for "depression and suicidal urges." The artist shared that he has struggled with anxiety and depression his entire life and was initially "ashamed" of his battle.

But not anymore.

Cudi's revelation comes at a time when celebrities are becoming increasingly open about their experiences with depression.

Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels, known as The Devastating Mic Controller, vividly remembers a time when he was out of control. The Run-D.M.C bandmate — who in 1999 was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a voice disorder that involves "spasms" of the vocal cords — recalls drinking a case of Olde English 800 a day to numb himself from the pain of losing his artistic identity and, at points, his will to live. "People looked at it as, ‘You shouldn’t feel this way because you’re D.M.C., you’re famous, you have this or that,'" he told USA TODAY. "But status and material things do nothing for how a person feels."

McDaniels reflects on his struggle in his new memoir Ten Ways Not to Commit Suicide. He — along with stars like Cudi, Selena Gomez, Cara Delevingne, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Demi Lovato, Trevor Noah, Kristen Bell and Lady Gaga — are part of a wave of celebrities coming forward about their experiences with depression, a condition that impacts roughly 15 million adults each year, according to 2014 figures, the most recent data available from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Gomez shared Aug. 30 that she was taking a hiatus from her Revival world tour due to depression, brought on by her lupus. "I've discovered that anxiety, panic attacks and depression can be side effects of lupus, which can present their own challenges," the singer-actress said in a statement to USA TODAY. "I want to be proactive and focus on maintaining my health and happiness and have decided that the best way forward is to take some time off."

Delevingne also withdrew from the spotlight when her depression returned just as her modeling career began to blossom. The star opened up to Esquire in August, sharing that she has struggled with depression since she was 16. "I was suicidal," she said. "I realized how lucky and privileged I was, but all I wanted to do was die. I felt so guilty because of that and hated myself because of that, and then it’s a cycle. I didn’t want to exist anymore."

"I would run off to the woods and smoke a pack of cigarettes," she continued. "And then I would smash my head so hard into a tree because I just wanted to knock myself out."

Bell, who began struggling in college, described her depression as a feeling of being permanently trapped in the "shade." "I’m normally such a bubbly, positive person, and all of a sudden I stopped feeling like myself," she wrote in a May essay for Time. "There was no logical reason for me to feel this way. I was at New York University, I was paying my bills on time, I had friends and ambition — but for some reason, there was something intangible dragging me down."

Celebrity disclosures aren't a new phenomenon. Actress Gene Tierney published her autobiography, Self-Portrait, which addressed her chronic depression, in April 1979.

Still, Rajiv Menon, a cultural analyst for branding company TruthCo., says the number of celebrities coming forward now is striking — and it didn't occur in a vacuum.

"The classic model of celebrity required people to keep up appearances in the public eye and there wasn’t really any room to talk about things like depression," he says. "But with the rise of new media over the last decade, there was a huge demand for media content that was centered on celebrity breakdowns. Think Britney Spears."

"It was a low point in Hollywood’s discussion of mental illness," Menon says. "But as our hunger for that type of media grew and news outlets focused on that, we saw smartphone cameras turning on regular people. And so it increasingly felt like your worst moments being captured on camera and distributed could happen to anyone, not just celebrities. That produced a much more empathetic cultural moment for stars to be vulnerable."

By sharing their experiences, stars present an opportunity to talk about depression on a larger scale, says Katrina Gay, national director of communications for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

"On our Tumblr sites, on our Facebook and Twitter communities, which are communities in their own rights, you’ll see this huge shift, especially with young people and people who are really on the fringes, who are more isolated socially, when they see someone like a Kristen Bell or a Demi Lovato being open, they're now encouraged to be more open."

And celebrity disclosures are resonating, at least in the digital space. According to Nielsen Social, Lovato's 2016 Democratic National Convention speech spawned 10,600 response tweets from its start at 7:47 p.m. ET through the end of the broadcast at 11:22 p.m. ET, which indicates users were circulating her remarks throughout the event. Wentworth Miller's poignant March 28 Facebook message on his lifelong struggle with depression received 908,000 reactions and nearly 300,000 shares. According to social monitoring platform CrowdTangle, Miller also experienced a nearly 60% increase in followers, going from 451,000 followers the week before the post to 1.04 million followers one week afterward. Johnson's Master Class segment on his trials navigating faith and depression has been viewed more than 917,000 times on YouTube, making it the second most popular Master Class posted to OWN's YouTube account.

Glenn Close maintains that the "most powerful tool to breaking the barriers caused by stigma are personal stories." The actress was diagnosed with depression in 2008 and, in 2010, co-founded the nonprofit Bring Change 2 Mind (BC2M) in honor of her sister Jessie, who has bipolar disorder, and her nephew Calen Pick, who has schizoaffective disorder. BC2M aims to fight stigma and discrimination against those with mental illness.

"The more stories of those who have been able to start the conversation, get help and achieve a feeling of self-worth, inclusion and purpose — instead of silence, isolation and shame — the more lives will be saved," Close said to USA TODAY in a statement. "No one is their illness. Humans are social animals. To be marginalized and made to feel shame and fear can be life-threatening. We need connection. Without it, we die."

But more than connecting with fans and empowering them to share their own stories, Gay says celebrities can help advance the conversation surrounding depression by taking action.

"That can mean being an advocate. It can be joining an awareness walk," she says. "There are a lot of resources that are out there but... the larger system of care — 'Where do I go? What’s even available?' — is a big mystery and a big maze. I don’t know that people know how to navigate the system of care and in many cases, there may not be care readily, easily available to them. (Celebrities can) point people to education or support groups or additional communities that they might be able to see that are helpful, and acknowledge (to fans) that coping is a journey, not a destination."


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