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Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas arrive to attend the Vanity Fair party to begin the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival in New York, April 17, 2012. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)
Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas arrive to attend the Vanity Fair party to begin the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival in New York, April 17, 2012. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)

The Zeta-Jones effect: Do celebrities hinder causes they suffer from? Add to ...

When celebrities speak openly about their mental illnesses, it helps bring attention to conditions that are not often discussed in public.

But instead of lifting the stigma around mental illness, could they actually make people less understanding?

Max Pemberton, a doctor and columnist for The Telegraph, argues that celebrities give a warped impression of what it is like to suffer from mental illnesses. The “general public only ever hears about the celebrity ‘mental-illness-lite’ version,” he writes. “For most people, their diagnosis is not some quirk to be dragged out when they have a book, TV programme or film to promote.”

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Pemberton recalls running a support group of psychiatric patients who were furious that a well-known television personality had given a media interview about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Their anger was not fuelled by envy or jealousy of the star’s multimillion-dollar lifestyle, he says. Rather, it was because this celebrity had taken on the role of a spokesperson for bipolar disorder, and yet his fellow sufferers could not relate to his experience.

Pemberton also takes aim at actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, who has openly talked about being admitted at a private psychiatric hospital for a few days last year to be treated for bipolar disorder. Although he acknowledges that patients’ conditions vary, the prevailing narrative that celebrities promote is “the ‘it’s made me stronger’ narrative,” he says. Individuals who have more severe conditions are rarely represented.

He asks: “Can you imagine how a boss might react when told that someone needs weeks or even months to recover from a relapse, when it appeared to take Ms Zeta-Jones not much more than a long weekend?”

As one commenter whose wife suffers from long-term psychosis explains on The Telegraph website: “I'm afraid like others, I cant [sic] really see any relationship between Catherine Zeta-Jones’s illness and ours. Support for ordinary people is pretty much non-existent.”

Zeta-Jones’s mental illness should not be trivialized, nor should any one else’s for that matter. But Pemberton’s column does encourage some reflection on how celebrities with mental illnesses are portrayed. Indeed, those who are seen to have triumphed over their illnesses are often applauded.

But sadly, certain stars who appear to suffer severe mental conditions or who have not overcome their illnesses (think actors Anne Heche or Brenda Fricker) are often marginalized by comparison.

Follow on Twitter: @wencyleung

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