Written by Shelby Pickelny
Mental health has always been a taboo subject, and one that was only to be discussed in private if at all. And yet, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S.” Despite its normalcy, only 36.9% of those adults suffering from this illness receive treatment.
Out of the 40 million total diagnosed adults who suffer from anxiety in the United States, far less than half are receiving appropriate treatment due to the stigmatization of mental illness in today’s society.
Everyone experiences stress in their lives at one point or another: that isn’t to say that they automatically have an anxiety disorder, nor is it to say that they aren’t experiencing other symptoms that may be indicative of other common illnesses.
Other mental illnesses include mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder, psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, personality disorders, Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – to name a few. For Webmd’s complete list of the types of mental illness, click here.
Image from “Managing Worry in Generalized Anxiety Disorder” by the Harvard Health Blog
Each person’s experience is different, as their brains and chemical balances are unique to the beholder; however, one thing is profoundly common: asking for help is hard.
And the effects of the coronavirus make everything harder.
What comes to mind when you think COVID-19? It’s likely that a slew of negative-leaning thoughts entered your mind: fear, stress, financial uncertainty, political uncertainty, and – hopefully not but painfully likely – a feeling of grievance.
You are not alone. An article by Forbes explains, “More than one-third of Americans have displayed clinical signs of anxiety, depression, or both since the coronavirus pandemic began.” This is one statistic of many that outline the effects the pandemic has had on people’s mental wellness, including the jarring: “Text messages to a federal disaster hotline increased more than 1000% last month,” (which was in April of 2020).
One of the ways that we can best help to combat the rise of mental health illnesses is to talk about them.
Normalizing a discussion around sleep or appetite changes, mood swings, problems thinking, and feeling disconnected – all of which are warning signs of mental illness – tells someone who is suffering from a mental illness – knowingly or unknowingly – that they do not have to feel afraid or outcast.
Luckily, a number of celebrities have stepped up in the last decade to serve as good role models and pioneers in the discussion of mental illness. Demi Lovato openly spoke about her Bipolar Disorder and time spent in rehab; Adam Levine acknowledges his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); Elton John was once bulimic; Megan Fox, Leonardo DiCaprio, and David Beckham live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD); Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Jim Carie, Miley Cyrus, and Beyonce have struggled with depression. Yes! Even Beyonce!
To name these eleven celebrities with mental illnesses is to only scratch the surface. But these faces in the public eye aren’t the only facets of Western culture with their heart set on shifting the conversation around mental health.
Broadway has been in on this for years.
Theatre is an art form known for its honest portrayal of the human experience. Intimate encounters involve the audience in whatever realistic, joyous, or heart-wrenching experiences that are being recaptured on the stage. Dialogue and character motivation are often clues to a character’s deepest truths. Music – and especially musical theatre – cuts even closer to the point.
If you’ve ever heard of the musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Next to Normal, you’ve already participated in what is at least the beginning of a discussion surrounding mental health. Brian Yorkey’s Next to Normal follows protagonist Diana Goodman, who suffers from bipolar depressive disorder and delusional episodes. Pasek and Paul’s Evan Hansen is motivated by the effects of his social anxiety disorder, and his devout willingness to remedy them.
Ben Platt and Laura Dreyfuss singing “Only Us” from Dear Evan Hansen, notably the line: “quiet the voices in your head; we can’t compete with all that.”
Brian Yorkey, book writer and lyricist of Next to Normal, explains that, “musical theatre gives audiences special access to the internal workings of a character. ‘[A character] can turn to the audience and sing to us, bring us into their mind and let us see what’s happening inside it… The music makes it possible to empathize with what these characters are going through rather than just sympathize.’”
And the show was grounded in extensive research. Kieron Cindric, author of the Playbill article How Musical Theatre Exposes the Truth of Mental Illness, importantly notes that Yorkey himself read dozens of personal memoirs of people who suffered from different mental illnesses, as well as different books on psychology. On top of that, the team also, “consulted with a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and a pediatrician who read each draft of the show as it was workshopped,” in order to ensure that the story remained, “authentic and sensitive.”
Alice Ripley, Aaron Tveit, and J. Robert Spencer in Next to Normal (Joan Marcus)
With contemporary subjects and scores that are close-if-not-in the rock genre, it is clear that these musicals are intended for a modern audience. Similarly, plays and musicals written during COVID’s quarantine have already started to surface. Let me be neither the first nor the last to say that I would not be surprised if a pandemic-inspired musical graced the doors of Broadway once it finally reopens – and when that day comes, be sure to find me again so I can say that I told you so.
But in the meantime, please be sure to ask your loved ones how they’re feeling.
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