It Isn’t Mental Health ‘Wokeness’ That’s Getting to Piers Morgan – It’s Fear of His Own Irrelevance

Naomi Osaka has probably never even heard of him (we’re jealous).

by Ash Sarkar

2 June 2021

Rob Prange/Flickr

“It’s never too late to heal.” Intended to divest mental health issues of the claustrophobic stigma which has traditionally accompanied them, The Me You Can’t See on Apple TV+ is a series produced by Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry where public figures such as Lady Gaga and NBA player DeMar DeRozan speak candidly about their own struggles. Not long after the first episode aired, tennis star Naomi Osaka announced her withdrawal from the French Open, citing bouts of depression and acute social anxiety as the reason why she could no longer compete in the tournament if it meant enduring post-match press conferences.

Something is changing in the world of celebrity: instead of secrecy and shame, mental health issues are being spoken about with an increased degree of openness and candour. Where once mental health issues were euphemised as ‘exhaustion’, and stays at The Betty Ford or The Priory kept as private as possible, disclosures of depression, anxiety and PTSD have created a new class of celebrity mental health advocates. 

We should be wary of viewing the comparative openness around fame and mental health as ushering in a new age of authenticity. Celebrity mental health advocacy is, of course, extremely limited by the demands of image management. There is an enduring sense that only some conditions have been de-stigmatised: depression and anxiety, yes, bipolar and addiction, sometimes, but schizophrenia, certainly not. Indeed, talk of mental health (or the more nebulous ‘wellbeing’) has supplanted the language of illness and disorder.

Public perception of vulnerability exists within a careful balance of considerations. For celebrity mental health advocates, the visible impact of their condition must not totally corrode their aura of attractiveness and aspiration. Those parts of mental illness which are disorderly, dirty, or volatile – that which cannot be sanitised or presented as a kind of enhanced sensitivity to the world’s cruelty – are still hidden from view, lest they invite punishment and outrage. You can be a celebrity with mental health issues, so long as they don’t get in the way of being successful and gorgeous.

There’s something discomforting about presenting ‘speaking out’ as itself a form of activism. The work to chip stigma away from mental illness is necessary and worthwhile: the vicious responses to women disclosing PTSD diagnoses demonstrates something of the resilience of the old ignorant myths. But it’s not as if suffering is distributed evenly across class, or that it’s simply judgmental attitudes that stop people from accessing the help they need. 

Though most of the participants in The Me You Can’t See acknowledge some form of ‘privilege’, there is little willingness to name that privilege for what it is – money. Money is the difference between guaranteed access to treatment, or having to rely on a system that has endured brutal cuts under austerity. Money dictates whether you can take time off work, arrange alternative childcare, or simply have the space to consider needs beyond day-to-day survival. Money not only shapes your experience of mental health issues, but how likely you are to suffer from them: 45% of homeless people in England have been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

A Barnardo’s study found that a similar percentage of care leavers had mental health needs, with 65% of them not receiving any kind of statutory support. Over half of prisoners have poor mental health. And whether your symptoms are recognised as a mental health issue or a criminal one is intimately bound up with class and race: Sean Rigg, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, died in police custody after a deterioration in his mental health. Celebrity advocacy ignores (and indeed, perhaps obscures) the institutional and material barriers which stand between people and care.

But it is not this which has so enraged the likes of Piers Morgan. It’s that a new generation of celebrities, who grew up watching the worst that the press has to offer in the ‘90s and ‘00s, have rejected the idea that being famous means making a pact with the media that they’re allowed to destroy your mental health if they so choose. As Jonathan Liew writes in The Guardian: “One of the world’s best athletes would literally rather quit a grand slam tournament than have to talk to the press. Rather than scrutinising what that says about her, it might be worth asking what that says about us.”

The advent of social media means that millennial and zillennial celebrities don’t require journalists to play ferryman between them and the public anymore. And you can’t blame them for taking a look at what happened to Princess Diana, or the ghoulish scrums around Amy Winehouse, or the phone-hacking scandals, or the headlines around Frank Bruno’s breakdown, and coming to the conclusion that there must be a less miserable way to be rich and famous.

It is this challenge to the authority of the media old guard which means that mental health discourse, when overstepping the bounds of ‘be kind’ platitudes, gets the culture war treatment. Though a quarter of people will experience mental health issues in their lifetime, the few celebrities who do disclose their diagnoses are met with disbelieving scoffs from sections of the reactionary press.

Piers Morgan has made a particular habit of this, having publicly cast doubt on the reliability of Lady Gaga, Meghan Markle and Naomi Osaka’s admissions. Disclosure is presented as simultaneously weak and ruthlessly exploitative, virtue signalling through trauma. Celebrities who talk about their mental health issues, especially if they connect their experience of suffering to how they’ve been treated by the media, are infantilised and denigrated. Prince Harry is a “spoiled brat”, all about “the me, me, me”; Naomi Osaka is decried as immature, precious and hypocritical. 

Despite its extreme limitations, celebrity mental health advocacy speaks to a profound cultural shift. The dominance of liberal identity politics in the world of pop culture does mean that vulnerability can be seen as asserting a form of moral authority; almost certainly, this will be wielded cynically by some. But the backlash from some sections of the establishment media is revealing in its hysteria.

Those who revelled in the gratuitous nastiness of tabloid culture, who dictated that the price of public adulation must be commensurate torture, are watching in horror as their power wanes.

Young celebrities have the tools to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of fame. It’s not mental health advocacy that’s annoying Piers Morgan – it’s the fear of his own declining cultural relevance.

Ash Sarkar is a contributing editor at Novara Media.

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