How Have the “Memeification” & Tabloid-Style Coverage of Mental Illness Hurt Us All?

Actor, author and mental health advocate Carrie Fisher poses on a window ledge in 1980. Photo Courtesy: Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

Before she passed away in 2016, actor, author and advocate Carrie Fisher wrote a column for The Guardian answering a reader's question about living with bipolar disorder. Fisher, who received her bipolar diagnosis at 24 but didn't really accept said diagnosis until four years later, had spoken openly about her mental illness for decades. For a while, that was something of a rarity in Hollywood, and there's no doubt Fisher, known most widely for playing Leia Organa in the Star Wars franchise, did her part to undo the stigma surrounding mental illness.

“We have been given a challenging illness, and there is no other option than to meet those challenges,” Fisher wrote in response to the reader's question. “Think of it as an opportunity to be heroic... an emotional survival. An opportunity to be a good example to others who might share our disorder.” Fisher went on to say that the reader was lucky to have been diagnosed — and accepting of that diagnosis — at such a young age, which stands in stark contrast to the ways the media often covers mental illness and disorder diagnoses.

“I am mentally ill. I can say that. I am not ashamed of that," Fisher said in an interview with ABC. "I survived that, I’m still surviving it, but bring it on. Better me than you.” For her work on ending mental health discrimination — and for her tireless efforts to combat stigma — the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) honored Fisher with a prestigious award in 2001. Later, Fisher received another award for her contributions and outspokenness, this time from Harvard College. "Many people thank me for talking about it," Fisher told The Harvard Gazette, "and mothers can tell their kids when they are upset with the diagnosis that Princess Leia is bipolar, too."

But not all public figures feel comfortable being outspoken like Fisher . That's largely due to how they're treated in the media — and because, despite advocates' best efforts, stigma persists. When it comes to celebrities and mental illness, things can get complicated, to say the least. For example, before learning about Kanye West’s bipolar disorder diagnosis, fans and critics alike found the rapper’s public persona to be a form of entertainment — something that made for a viral soundbite or meme. However, West has been open about his diagnosis for quite some time now; what the public once thought were amusing statements are now cast in a different light.

On one hand, we need to stop laughing at mental illness — we need to stop making manic episodes into something viral or meme-worthy. On the other hand, celebrities have immense platforms and, with those platforms, there comes a certain amount of responsibility. That is, mental illness isn’t an excuse for abusing one’s reach, privilege or platform, but it is "a reason" (via WBUR) — one that we must discuss with more nuance and consideration than a Tweet can hold.

Editor's Note: This article contains mentions of various mental illnesses and mental health disorders as well as discussions of how some of these illnesses and disorders are portrayed in media coverage surrounding public figures. It's important to note that depictions, or celebrities' views on their own illnesses or disorders, may not resonate for some readers, as everyone's experience with mental illness and mental health disorders is nuanced and specific.