When I read why Carey chose to wait 17 years to disclose her diagnosis, I felt heartbroken, defeated once more by a society that believes mental illness makes you dangerous, hard to talk to or unpredictable. In her interview with People, Carey said, “I didn’t want to carry around the stigma of a lifelong disease that would define me and potentially end my career.” She also noted that, “Until recently I lived in denial and isolation and in constant fear someone would expose me,” a not-unfounded fear considering how outspoken her brother has been about her health.
You only have to look to Twitter or Facebook to see how quickly the stigma about living with bipolar disorder spreads. Even a Logo post from 2016 claiming to praise Carey is titled “7 Reasons Mariah Carey is the Greatest Crazy Celebrity Of All Time,” and opens by saying: “Who doesn’t love it when celebrities go crazy? Whether it’s Britney or Lindsay, or even Amanda Bynes, we all just plop down on the couch with popcorn and watch the spectacle unfurl. For me, though, there’s no one who does crazy like Mariah. …”
And yet, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 2.8% of US adults had bipolar disorder in the last year. Those are millions of people who may not have access to security guards, an entourage, top-quality medical care, or even access to basic psychiatric treatment. If Mariah Carey, an undisputed pop star whose career has spanned 28 years and 14 records, can live in fear of stigma, there is serious work to be done.
I know this struggle well. On April 2, 2015, I made a decision that forever changed my life: I filed for short-term disability. I wasn’t injured, nor was I physically ill. I had recently been diagnosed with bipolar II disorder (which is distinguished from bipolar I by the lack of psychosis during an episode and less intense “ups”) and needed time away from work to find a medication regimen that would help me be a productive employee again.
In the months preceding my phone call to human resources, I had gone from being a top employee to one of the lowest-performing in my department due to the symptoms of my condition. My moods would cycle between “normal,” depression, and hypomania — a state of mind where I could feel anything from energized, uplifted, irritable, unreasonably ambitious or impulsive — and I could barely get through a workweek without debating taking time off. Thankfully, I was able to take five months away from my job to find a mood stabilizer medication that worked for me and soon felt like myself again.
I’m hopeful for Carey’s future. According to People, she decided to speak out because, “I’m just in a really good place right now, where I’m comfortable discussing my struggles with bipolar II disorder. I’m hopeful we can get to a place where the stigma is lifted from people going through anything alone. It can be incredibly isolating. It does not have to define you and I refuse to allow it to define me or control me.”
When other celebrities have come forward about their own experiences with bipolar disorder, many choose to use their platform to become activists. Demi Lovato founded the Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health initiative to encourage open conversation about mental health, Carrie Fisher spoke out and advocated for “Bipolar Pride Day,” and Patty Duke was among the first celebrities to speak out about her illness, writing two books: “Call Me Anna” (1988) and “A Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic-Depressive Illness” (1992, co-written with Gloria Hochman).
I’ll be interested to see how Carey decides to take part in erasing the stigma of mental illness. Apparently, she’s decided to write a memoir, as well as record a 15th album, and I hope that both will address the state of mental health in her life, but there is always more to be done. Considering her longstanding contributions to charity, it would be nice to see organizations such as the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness added to her list of beneficiaries.
However, there is more to activist work than where you send your money. Carey could speak at any number of conferences, such as the World Congress on Mental Health and Well- Being, NATCON or the NASPA Mental Health Conference. The first two focus on providing education to adults, but NASPA’s goal is to focus on the mental health needs of college students, an especially appropriate choice considering symptoms of bipolar disorder often begin in the late teens or early twenties. Since it can be difficult and expensive for the public to attend conferences, Carey could do a TED talk about her experiences; those are available free online. She could host a walk or other local event to raise money for research and awareness of the disorder. She could do something as simple as tweeting periodically about bipolar disorder to her 21 million followers.
The main thing, though, is for her to keep talking, keep sharing, keep showing up for those of us who share not only her diagnosis, but her experience. We need to live in a world where seeking treatment for your mental health isn’t masked by the term “exhaustion.” We need to live in a world where no one goes years without seeking treatment out of fear. We need to live in a world where saying, “I live with bipolar disorder” is as easy as telling someone you have asthma. The fact that Mariah Carey waited 17 years to come forward is proof enough that we need change. I hope that she’ll continue to be a part of it — for millions of our sakes.