The fact that celebrities struggle with drug use and mental illness is not surprising, nor is it new.
What is new is the fact that today's celebrities can share their unedited mental health confessions in real time with billions of fans through social media.
Justin Bieber joined this tradition yesterday, posting a screenshot of a long note in which he detailed his struggles with fame and addiction. "Sometimes it can even get to the point where you feel you don't want to live anymore," he wrote. "I started doing pretty heavy drugs at 19 and abused all of my relationships. I Became mean, disrespectful to women, and angry." He also spoke about "heavy" drug usage and the pressures of being a child star.
The message concluded on a positive note, and because it's Justin Bieber, he gave a final shout-out to Jesus. "Luckily god blessed me with extraordinary people who love me for me," he wrote. "Jesus loves you."
The post inspired a number of celebrities to express their support and love. Khloe Kardashian and Liam Payne both issued messages of support, and Ed Sheehan posted a red heart emoji under the post. The post has also reverberated through fan communities, inspiring a wave of support among present and former Beliebers.
While Bieber's post definitely seems to come from a place of hard-earned wisdom, its existence raises complicated questions about the benefits and problems of social media and the increasing transparency it creates between celebrities and their fans. A burgeoning culture of honesty on social media is making it easier for all people to talk about their problems, certainly, but is it helping to solve any of them? Is a spirit of radical confessionalism on social media going to address the root causes of mental illness (and their rising occurrence among millennials)—or is it going to make depression and drug use even more of a trend than it already is?
The Stars Are Just Like Us: Celebrities, Social Media, and Mental Illness
Rather than reserve their struggles for their art (or for the odd invasive interviewer), stars have taken to posting confessions online with increasing frequency, pouring their hearts out to the entire world in the form of screenshots of iPhone notes.
While most fads of the rich and famous are not relatable to all of us, this one is. Today, it's easier than ever to relate to (and directly) communicate with stars, which can be difficult for famous people who bear the weight of fans' emotional confessions as well as their vitriol. Overall, the boundaries between celebrities and their fans are growing thinner and thinner, largely thanks to social media. This isn't always a good thing. Celebrities obviously aren't always the best influences, but more than ever, fanbases have shown themselves to be truly toxic.
In 2018, Pete Davidson used Instagram to post a call for help, which sparked widespread fear and panic among his fans and friends. He later blamed relentless cyberbullying for some of his suicidal thoughts.
His post was alarming for many reasons, not least because cyberbullying can be just as damaging to celebrities as it can be to the average middle schooler. (Davidson was later tracked down by the NYPD; and now, he seems to be doing fine for the most part, despite occasional comedy mishaps). But it's clear that as high-profile figures become more transparent and present on social media, they also become more vulnerable to the influence of strangers. Because of the Internet's multitude of trolls and rabid fans, social media is a breeding ground for abuse and toxicity. It also creates a culture where mental illness is normalized, genuine suicidal ideation can be confused for jokes, and where genuine care is replaced by likes and heart emojis.
Still, these emojis can create jolts of adrenaline that aren't so different from the applause of millions of fans: They're affirmations that ultimately mean nothing when you're alone in your hotel room at night, but they leave you wanting more.
Perhaps this is partly why so many stars are coming clean about their mental health online, including Halsey, Lady Gaga, Kid Cudi, and Chance the Rapper.
Each one of these stars has been widely praised for their decisions to speak out about mental illness and other struggles. While their pain might be spurred on by the pressures of fame and the Internet, 1 in 4 people suffer from mental illness, and it's certainly not a phenomenon reserved for Hollywood's upper echelons.
For its part, Justin Bieber's post is not attention-seeking, not reliant on hollow attention or numbers. Instead, it highlights the importance of close relationships and personal growth, while not discounting the existence of pain and past traumas. In the end, Bieber's post outlines some steps towards making peace with one of the core commonalities of our existence: Life is suffering, and there's nothing that all the fame and money in the world can do about that.
Social Media's Complicated Relationship with Mental Health
Although celebrity mental health confessions might be indicative of a fundamental truth of the human experience, because these people are so famous, their posts have a lot more power and cultural influence than most of our late-night rants. When celebrities post about their mental health and drug abuse issues online, this can be extremely impactful in terms of combating stigma and generating large-scale conversations about the importance of treatment and the root causes of these issues. In general, radical honesty in online spheres can break down barriers that prevent people from accessing the help they need.
On the other hand, though candidness and honesty are important to combat stigma, sometimes unlimited, unfiltered usage of social media can glamorize and normalize mental illness, making it into a trend. It can also trivialize and commodify mental illness, normalize and aestheticize destructive behavior, and downplay the importance of getting help. Lil Peep, a rapper who died from a drug overdose in 2017, posted the message "When I die You'll love me" the week before his death. Since the rapper built his brand on these kinds of messages, they weren't enough to raise an alarm, but this exchange sparked extensive conversation about when social media presences should be treated like red flags. Then again, posts that tell a "I was hurting but then I got help and now everything's better" sort of narrative suggest illusions about the real, winding series of ups and (mostly) downs in life. Clearly, the answer to the modern world's mental health crisis can't be endless, unrestrained posting, cast into the Internet's heartless void.
In short, social media is never going to have a clear, straightforward, or stagnant influence on our mental health. It's always going to be just as complicated as the human experience itself. The science supports this, as overall there is no clear consensus on exactly how much social media helps or hurts mental health.
While excessive social media usage is generally frowned upon by experts, the consensus about personal, confessional online posts is even murkier. It's definitely easier to confess to the computer screen than to other people, though. According to Jeffrey Janata, PhD, a psychiatry professor at Case Western Reserve University, online confessions can be as therapeutic and healing as interpersonal ones. "Anytime we increase stress — and harboring guilty secrets is a stressor — we tax our bodies," he said, but confession can even strengthen the immune system, even raising the quantity of white blood cells in people's' bloodstreams. So, maybe Justin Bieber will be virus-free for quite a while—and you could be too, if you go ahead and post that essay you drafted up in your Notes app last night.