Identity

Mariah Carey Opens Up About Being Bipolar, Helping to Fight a Dangerous Stigma

"It sends a great message that says, ‘Wow, not only can I persevere and be resilient, but also it’s OK for me to talk about it. I don’t have to hide anymore.'"
April 11, 2018, 6:59pm
Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

In 2001, award-winning superstar Mariah Carey suffered an “emotional and physical breakdown” that landed her in the hospital; she was later moved to an undisclosed facility to recuperate. On her website, she complained about being overworked: She had just signed a multi-million dollar contract with Virgin Records, and her first film, Glitter, was just about to hit theaters. But others noted that she appeared to have been spiraling for weeks: She’d recently appeared unannounced on MTV’s TRL and stripped down to her sports bra.

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Today, in a preview of People magazine’s weekly cover story coming out Friday, Carey revealed that shortly after that 2001 breakdown, she was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. She admitted she lived “in denial and isolation” about her diagnosis for years, and worried “someone would expose” her. It wasn’t until recently—after “the hardest couple of years” she’d been through—that she sought treatment.

Explaining how she was impacted by her illness, Carey told the magazine, “For a long time I thought I had a severe sleep disorder. But it wasn’t normal insomnia and I wasn’t lying awake counting sheep. I was working and working and working … I was irritable and in constant fear of letting people down. It turns out that I was experiencing a form of mania. Eventually I would just hit a wall. I guess my depressive episodes were characterized by having very low energy. I would feel so lonely and sad — even guilty that I wasn’t doing what I needed to be doing for my career.”

The singer also recognized the burden that stigma places on people who struggle with mental health illness: “It can be incredibly isolating. It does not have to define you and I refuse to allow it to define me or control me.”

Since she went public with her condition—one she has in common with fellow celebrities Catherine Zeta Jones and Demi Lovato, and millions of Americans—fans on social media and mental health advocates have praised Carey for her transparency. Allen Doederlein, the executive vice president of external affairs at Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, says the organization stands proudly with Carey, “who's opened a door to wellness for millions of people, thanks to sharing her personal experience with bipolar disorder.”

Katrina Gay, the national director of strategic partnerships at the National Alliance for Mental Illness, agrees, noting that Carey’s revelation is a great indication of how much progress society has made in terms of accepting mental health illness. In 2001, she tells Broadly, when the public first learned Carey was undergoing psychiatric treatment, “it wasn’t safe from a social standpoint, in terms of her brand and possibly her career,” for her to be so forthcoming about her struggles. The entertainment industry and the public just weren’t ready to respond in an encouraging way, and she blames that on institutional stigma.

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As an example, Gay points to Britney Spears’ highly publicized breakdown in 2007 and the extreme criticism she received, which is a big part of why many people who have struggled with mental illness kept their condition private. Spears’ experience, she explains, “shows us how far we’ve come. Back then, it was cruel and it was almost like this voyeuristic, hateful fascination with observing and watching her struggle.”

In fact, according to a 2009 study, gender biases play a role in mental illness stigma: The researchers found that people are more likely to stigmatize a woman who adheres to the gender stereotypes associated with mental illness—for example, women are more likely to be seen as susceptible to depression—than if she showcases symptoms that are more typical in men, such as violent alcoholism. The explanation the study’s authors offered was that “gender-typical cases were significantly less likely to be seen as genuine mental disturbances.”

While those biases may still exist, Gay argues that people have become more understanding. “What I think we see nowadays in the current social climate is that there really is a drive for more authenticity and transparency about who we are,” she says. “The world has shifted. It’s safer [to be open about mental illness] because we’re more understanding. These are conditions like any other—they’re real, people have them, and we can overcome them. We may struggle at times, but we can persevere and be resilient.”

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In addition to having to face stigma around mental health in the institutions we have to work and engage in, Gay says, people also have to deal with it internally—that is, “I should be ashamed, I can’t share this because somehow it’s a scary flaw”—or externally, from friends or others who may judge or stereotype them.

One in five of us struggle with mental health conditions, Gay adds. As such, Carey’s story “gives us permission to be real and authentic when she can be real and authentic. It sends a great message that says, ‘Wow, not only can I persevere and be resilient, but also it’s OK for me to talk about it. I don’t have to hide anymore. I don’t have to pretend when people like her can come out. It gives me permission to not feel so alone with my own condition.’”