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We must learn from celebrities and speak out on mental illness

For all our sophistication, our attitude to mental illness is all too often stuck in a different era.

All of us are liable to suffer mental illness, it not being much of a respecter of age, generder or any other differences between people.

Chances are, most of us know somebody who has depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or some other such condition.

But while nobody is discriminated against for having had, say, broken a leg, to admit to having had a mental illness can mean seeing doors slammed in your face by prospective employers, insurance companies or even by some so-called friends.


So when celebrities such as Catherine Zeta Jones "come out" as having a mental health issue they are doing us all a favour -- up to a point.

The beautiful Ms Zeta Jones, appears to have it all with her successful career, two lovely children, enviable lifestyle and wealth.

But she's now spoken about having to be treated for bipolar disorder triggered by husband Michael Douglas's struggle with throat cancer.

This week also, the actor Paddy Considine talked about being diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, which can cause difficulties in relating to others.

Actress Mary McEvoy went on The Late Late Show last week and spoke movingly of her experience of depression.

The actor Stephen Fry has also been very public about his bipolar disorder. In ways, he has become the poster boy for this challenging condition.

Because mental illness so often is met with discrimination and prejudice, this is, up to a point, a good thing.

It's hard to believe but more than one third of people with bipolar disorder say they have been discriminated against and a quarter don't tell family or friends about it for fear of not being understood. So to hear prominent people talk about their mental illness is a very positive thing indeed.

But what is noticeable about the people mentioned so far is, they're all in the entertainment industry. Nothing wrong with that but most people with mental illnesses are not performers or entertainers.

In a sense, entertainers are in a category of their own. We see them as inhabiting a more exotic world than ours.


I have no doubt that people like Stephen Fry, by talking about his bipolar disorder and by being such an obviously likeable, effective and sane individual will have reduced prejudice against people with the disorder.

But by how much? I fear that the effects may be limited by our view of performers as a special breed.

What we really need is business leaders, community leaders and others with whom we can identify to talk about suffering from these conditions.

Where are the successful entrepreneurs, the professionals, the sports stars who'll speak frankly about living with mental illness?

Yet, can you blame them for keeping quiet about it? How far are we, really, from the era in which people with mental illnesses were locked up for life or feared or even considered a matter of shame for their families? Gradually, very gradually, our views are changing but, the fact that a quarter of people with bipolar disorder alone have not told family and friends about it suggests that discrimination is still very real.

Bipolar disorder, with its seesaws between highs and lows, is a challenging condition. If a person has a genetic disposition towards the disorder a spike in stress, such as that suffered by Zeta Jones, can bring it on.

So let's wish Zeta Jones and all others who are coping with mental illnesses today well. It's about time we stepped into 21st-century in our attitudes to mental illness and they are making their contribution towards that goal.

But what a pity that people in less-glamorous jobs are afraid, and understandably so, to do the same.

Padraig O'Morain is accredited as a counsellor by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy