Why Ryan Reynolds, Naomi Osaka And Other Celebrities Need To Discuss Mental Health

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I remember it like it was yesterday. As soon as the hosts of the house party heard I was taking classical Indian singing lessons, they busted out their harmonium – a rectangular, box-like organ instrument. With wide-open, nervous eyes, I glanced over at my father, vigorously shaking my head. He nodded towards the Indian keyboard with a stern expression that said, ‘I pay good money for these weekly lessons…you’re going to perform!’ The truth is I neither enjoyed singing nor performing publicly. In fact, I hated it; I just never had the courage to tell my parents. Riddled with anxiety, I sat in the middle of the living room and started to play the harmonium while fumbling through 1950s Bengali lyrics. The notes were wrong. My voice was off-key. I could feel the singe of silent, stunned stares from aunties and uncles. Two minutes felt like two hours. A mixture of anger and embarrassment drove my father to pound back one glass of Johnny Walker after another. My memory of this traumatizing event is as vivid as a Renoir oil painting. I was 10 years old.

Yet I was lucky. My anxiety was relatively mild, temporary and benign. I also resolved the problem by confronting my parents about my feelings. Well, I still continued singing lessons for five more years; but I only performed in public after considerable preparation and advance notice. Unfortunately, millions of people worldwide are affected by anxiety disorders (ADs), such as panic and social anxiety disorders, which go unaddressed and/or untreated. And they’re not rare. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), ADs are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults or 19% of the population each year. Celebrities are becoming increasingly vocal about mental illness.

Canadian-American movie star, Ryan Reynolds, recently opened up about his “lifelong pal, anxiety.” In a social media post, the Deadpool actor wrote, “I know I’m not alone…We don’t talk enough about mental health and don’t do enough to destigmatize talking about it.”

Stigma of Mental Illness

So, why are people with mental health problems stigmatized? Why are my patients with depression and bipolar disorder shamed, socially discredited and discriminated against?

“Mental health is still stigmatized because we associate it with weakness,” explained Howard Liu, MD, MBA, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry, University of Nebraska Medical Center. In fact, Dr. Liu firmly believes that individuals with mental health disorders are some of the bravest people he knows. I feel the same way.  

Another factor driving stigma is the perceived invisibility. Unlike a fractured hip, cirrhotic liver or third-degree burn, mental illnesses are diagnosed differently.

“Mental illness diagnoses are made by stories and observations – not scans and blood tests,” describes Candida Fink, MD, a psychiatrist and author in Westchester, NY. After decades of practicing child and adolescent psychiatry, Dr. Fink is frustrated by the relentless reality that her patients are not taken seriously. “Mental illness is always being accused of not being ‘real,’ and therefore, ‘how do you know someone isn’t faking it?’” I share Dr. Fink’s frustration.

Should Celebrities Talk About Mental Illness?

When tennis champion, Naomi Osaka, declined to do press during the French Open, she faced a backlash and $15,000 fine from organizers at Roland Garros – prompting her to withdraw from the Grand Slam tournament altogether. Osaka then went public with her mental health struggles via social media.

“I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media,” Osaka posted on Twitter. “I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try and engage and give [the media] the best answers I can.”

She later went on to share more personal details of her health on social media: “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.”

Music superstar, Justin Bieber, opened up about his mental health struggles. “There [were] times where I was really, really suicidal,” confessed the Canadian singer-songwriter who experienced “consistent” pain at the height of his fame…as a teenager. Ariana Grande posted weekly on social media during Mental Health Awareness Month, sharing resources on mental health, substance use, postpartum support, Veterans Crisis Line and Black Mental Health Alliance.

So, should celebrities be so public about their mental health experiences?

“Absolutely. I think it’s great when public figures who are considered role models or superheroes are transparent and discuss their imperfections with their fans,” says Pierre Arty, MD, Chief Psychiatric Officer at Housing Works. Dr. Arty offered additional words of wisdom: “It relieves us all of the fantasy of perfection, allows us to embrace our own shortcomings and get help if needed. It allows for self-compassion, and we all need that.”

Dr. Liu loves it when celebrities “tell their own mental health stories.” As a child psychiatrist and parent, he had specific words of praise for my fellow Canadian: “I applaud Ryan Reynolds for role modeling to his kids that one can be successful while living with a chronic mental health condition. “Snapping out of” depression or anxiety is a myth. The reality is that many people must learn to manage these conditions throughout their lives. Dr. Liu: “It’s okay to struggle, and courageous to seek help.”

Dr. Fink takes it a step further.

“I think celebrities speaking up saves lives. Normalizing mental health experiences, diagnoses, therapy and medications makes it SO much easier for someone to know they aren’t alone.” Dr. Fink adds that speaking up, naming, sharing, connecting and accepting are all essential to finding solutions – both individually and in society. 

What Changes Need To Happen in the Mental Health Space?

In short, a lot. We have a LONG way to go to in addressing disparities in mental health care and treatment.

“As a healthcare professional, I wish mental illness was viewed through the same lens as medical/physical illness,” said Dr. Arty. I, too, wish that the brain was appreciated the same way as other organs like the heart or liver which often receive immediate, science-driven medical attention when impaired. Additionally, ‘spillage’ of this brain-illness appreciation into policy, education and distribution of resources to assist individuals and families with mental illness would be ideal.

Many mental health professionals would like to see the conversation begin during childhood. “Let’s talk to kids about validating a wide range of emotions,” urges Dr. Liu. “As a child psychiatrist, I want to see policymakers make consistent investment in school-based mental health and social emotional learning.”

Integration of mental health into broader health care must also be a federal priority. Dr. Fink suggests mental health staff be present in PCP clinics, advising admin, nursing and medical staff. Insurance companies also need to reform their model for mental health reimbursement. “A routine psych visit takes 30 min, therapy takes 45-60 minutes,” Dr. Fink explains. “We can’t pay these interventions the same as a 15-minute ENT exam. The payment model needs to reimburse mental health providers for the time it takes to do the work.”


Make no mistake: mental illness is a health crisis. Individuals with serious mental illness die decades earlier than they should. And not because of increased accidents or suicides, but due to poor physical health, driven by disparities in healthcare access. I’ve cared for far too many patients who’ve needlessly struggled. I’ve seen far too many relatives and friends suffer in shameful silence. Meaningful, lasting change must start with massive investment in education – of healthcare professionals, policymakers, law enforcement and judges, to start. Education and storytelling kill stigma.

We also need structural changes within organizations. I empathize with Ms. Osaka. While I will never understand the immense pressure of performing at the highest physical and mental levels before millions of people globally then answering journalists’ repetitive questions about said performance, I do know something about workplace stressors. As a doctor to patients who experience homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, incarceration, pain and trauma; who is on-call 24/7; and who must answer to City and State agencies, I have been paralyzed by moments of profound anxiety. To the point where I have told my boss (the CMO) that I would no longer communicate with a certain senior staffer who I blamed for my sleeping problems and angry outbursts. Not dissimilar to Osaka’s refusal to speak to the press.

Such individual decisions, however, have wider repercussions. ALL athletes should be afforded the same opportunity; but if they all avoid the press, then sports journalism, endorsement contracts and fans are all adversely impacted. My boss explained that not communicating to the staffer was not an option. But unlike French Open organizers, she empathized with my emotional turmoil and provided concrete suggestions. This approach relieved my anxiety. In pro sports, I believe an empathic strategy starts with ALL athletes receiving equal treatment of their mental AND physical health. In the case of Ms. Osaka (and likely others who haven’t spoken out publicly), address the specific triggers induced by a press conference, using a supportive team trained in mental health. Organizations such as the French Open, the USTA, WTA, etc. need to work collaboratively with mental health professionals, athletes and the media to create a conducive environment for all. This is time-consuming, HARD WORK. But it will be worth it. The mental wellbeing of Naomi, Ryan, Justin, Ariana, my patients and millions of others worldwide – including the little girl in me traumatized by public singing – depend on it.

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