TAKING MENTAL HEALTH SERIOUSLY: The Impact of Celebrity Activism And How You Can Help Normalize Mental Health Issues

Aditi Gupta
5 min readAug 8, 2021


On most days, I find faults in how the media discusses mental health but recently the internet was flooded with news reports of Simone Biles’ exit from the Olympics. The reason cited was mental health concerns and the articles mostly argued in favour of her decision. This change in trend around mental health conversations came as a pleasant surprise.

However, the next morning I realized I had made the assumption too soon. I woke up to an Instagram story where, at length, someone had ranted about how Biles was setting a bad example by opting out of a big game. The commentator expressed the sentiment that she had enough years of preparation to mentally and physically prepare herself and that she was probably the reason why some other player from her country did not have the chance to compete in the Olympics. Such unsolicited judgmental comments that condemn Biles’ act does more harm than good.

To my mind, it was absurd that mental health was not good enough a reason for some people. When a player is not in a proper physical form, it is completely appropriate for them to be excused from competing in the game due to an injury. The fundamental problem with our outlook toward mental health today is not giving equal importance to mental health issues. What Simone Biles did was brave. It takes guts to participate in the Olympics but it takes way more courage to withdraw from it.

Candid self-disclosure by celebrities are powerful statements. Simone Biles, Ben Stokes and Naomi Osaka are a few athletes who recently announced their withdrawals from their respective sports competitions, in an act of exercising self-care. A similar change can also be noted in the Indian context where sportspersons and artists alike have come to the forefront of mental health dialogue in recent times. When the environment of sports is such that it propagates a culture, where not wanting to be seen as “weak” is a huge component, Virat Kohli, Sania Mirza and Dutee Chand are but a few elite players who bravely acknowledged their mental health struggles in front of the camera. Bollywood was not far behind from doing their bit, as it has also contributed to the dialogue with big names like Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone and Anushka Sharma opening up about their experiences of mental illness.

How Do Mental Health Discussions in the Public Domain Help?

A person’s struggle with mental health disorder is personal and celebrities do not really need to share this information with their audience(s). However, when they do discuss their mental health struggles, it helps to normalize mental health issues in a candid manner. Celebrity endorsements make a difference as they have a larger impact than that of regular individuals. The fans who look up to them may change their own approach towards their mental health. Thus, “who” talks about it and “how” they talk about it matters. When done correctly, it promotes healthy dialogue around psychological health.

For instance, when sportspersons and actors who identify as males open up about their mental health issues, they make a difference to fight back against the toxic masculinity culture that is best captured by the phrase “boys don’t cry”. Similarly, when Indians in positions of power and influence disclose their mental health problems, it serves as a step towards shattering years of stigma and discrimination towards mental health disorders in India. Indian representation that targets the Indian apathetic audience changes the narrative with open discussions on the subject becoming normalized. So, when Simone Biles, a Black female athlete in a white male dominated world, opened up about her struggle and prioritized her psychological health first, it was revolutionary. Hence, celebrities from underrepresented populations help to set an example and others from the community follow suit.

Another aspect that is worth mentioning about celebrity activism is that their experience becomes more tangible to their lay audience. It shows us how life for these high-profile figures might not be as glamorous and perfect as it appears from the outside. Psychological problems do not discriminate. They affect you irrespective of what your background is, whether you are male or female, young or old, and/or the colour of your skin.

Celebrities have considerable influence on their respective fans that encourages help seeking behaviour. Such people who look up to these influencers feel less alone knowing that their admired idol has the same struggles and that if they could get help for it, “I” could too. This is similar to what the British media termed as “the Diana Effect”. In a 1995 BBC interview, Princess Diana explained her bulimia that had a major effect in fighting stigma against eating disorders. Her story encouraged people to acknowledge their own eating disorder, recognize the symptoms and get treatment for it. Her bold move is credited for a decline in the number of eating disorder cases today. Imagine the impact if other such famous personalities would contribute to the cause of mental health!

Some make mental health a part of their personal brand while others take on additional responsibility for creating safe spaces. We have instances of celebrities that have gone as far as creating foundations for mental health awareness and treatment. In 2015, Deepika Padukone set up The Live Love Laugh Foundation, inspired by her personal journey with anxiety and depression. Since its inception, the organization has been an influential voice in raising awareness about anxiety, stress and depression. Abhinav Bindra, the only Indian to ever win an individual gold medal at the Olympics, is an active advocate for the mental health of athletes. He has been public about his struggle with mental health after winning the gold at Beijing Olympics in 2008 and how he sought therapy for the same. He founded a non-profit called the Abhinav Bindra Foundation that focuses on mental wellness for athletes and coaches.

How Can You Make a Contribution?

Awareness breeds change. At our end, the least that we can do is to stay educated which will enable us to understand and empathize with persons who live with mental health disorders. As individuals, we underestimate the power we hold to make a change. By aiming to actively participate in these dialogues around mental health, we destigmatize it. The devices in our hands are game-changers today and, more than ever, we can truly make a difference. With that said, I’m reminded of a recent tweet that I had seen, ““Simone Biles probably won’t see your tweets about her ‘making excuses’ or ‘playing the mental health card’, but your friends who struggle with their mental health will, and it will hurt them.”. Your comments matter, so let’s start taking mental health seriously.

Cartoon Credits: Lalo Alcaraz

This article is also published at Raahee. (https://raahee.in/blog/taking-mental-health-seriously-the-impact-of-celebrity-activism-and-how-you-can-help-normalize-mental-health-issues-tkzwlr)