This week Carrie Fisher passed away. I was 13 when I first saw Star Wars. A Princess who didn’t wear a ball-gown was a revelation. But Fisher wasn’t just a kick-ass role model for teen girls in parochial, misogynistic, 1970s New Zealand. Fisher, like all people with public appeal, had an incredible power to normalize and educate about stigmatized disorders. And she was brave enough to use it.
Fisher was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her 20s, and struggled with the mental illness and the stigma of it through much of her early life. In her 2008 autobiography she explained to the world a better way to think about it: “living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls. Not unlike a tour of duty in Afghanistan (though the bombs and bullets, in this case, come from the inside). At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of.” By reframing bipolar as a heroic struggle, like that of the Jedi, she did those with bipolar disorder – and their families – a huge service.
I have spent quite a bit of time lately thinking about the problem of de-stigmatization, specifically what works. Public health is desperately short of good tools in the kit for how to do it effectively. Turns out, celebrity really matters, and sharing simple personal stories is enough to make a profound difference. Bipolar disorder is not as scary as it used to be thanks to Fisher sharing her stories, and with her fierce wit to boot.
Of course, there is are also possible down-sides to celebrity stigma-sharers. They can make things harder too. The version of mental illness that are projected can be one that is sanitized – where wealth and talent override the everyday chaos and damage that illness brings into families. And this is another way that Carrie Fisher was special in her sharing: she made it very clear that mental illness wasn’t something that she had, heroically fixed, and moved on. She was absolutely open about the complicated, ongoing challenges of living with serious mental illness. She didn’t make it her own personal “success” story.
So, when is personal celebrity engagement most useful for destigmatization? When it normalizes and explains a misunderstood and feared condition in a way that creates empathy and understanding of those affected. When is it probably least helpful? When it is portrayed as a condition that one had, dealt with, and moved on from – when the heroic portrait reveal none of the real, everyday struggle. That said any sort of normalization around highly stigmatized disorders is probably more of a good thing than a bad.
So, in the larger tool kit of public health destigmatization, celebrity self-outing remains the sharpest scalpel. One single, determined, brave, funny, and kind person can use their public stage to rewrite the cultural script on stigmatized disease. A better, healthier, safer, fairer world needs more Carrie Fishers.