Catherine Zeta-Jones did it and received praise. Demi Lovato did it, and pop culture watchers agreed that it could mark a step toward getting her career back on track. Then Selena Gomez tried to jump on the bandwagon with this statement to the Daily Record: "I am sure I have some sense of bipolar-ness. I wake up happy. Then I turn to sadness on a dime. It's crazy, but I do enjoy all of it right now." The noise that followed? That was the sound of a million palms hitting a million foreheads as mental health advocates worldwide heard Gomez's misguided attempt at joining the bipolar party.
So what's so bad about the Disney star's statement? On one hand, it might help to normalize bipolar syndrome and other mental ailments, which may otherwise be looked upon as less common, less "real" or less dangerous than, say, cancer or heart disease. Celebs do have that effect. Whenever one decides to, say, open up about an eating disorder, it makes encountering these struggles in real life that much less surprising to their fans. As it was noted by Lovato, a much better celeb ambassador to the world of bipolar struggles, "What's important for me now is to help others."
But on the other hand -- and this hand is bigger, more noticeable and being waved before the American public all stupidly -- Gomez classifying herself as, like, totally a teensy bit bipolar hurts the cause because she's a 19-year-old uneducated in these matters. Bipolar disorder typically causes cycles of mania and depression over long periods of time. What Gomez described to the reporter sounds more like a dumb teenager experiencing the daily emotional highs and lows of a hormonal proto-adult. As this blog points out, Gomez needs to realize that "bipolar disorder is a real thing that affects the lives of millions of people, and not just a cute word for what it's like when she wakes up grumpy." It's like she said she understands famine in Third World countries because one time she had to shoot a scene that ran so long that she missed her juice time.
It's premature to say that bipolar disorder has replaced bullying as the latest celeb cause. After all, it's hardly a trend yet, with Zeta-Jones and Lovato bravely coming forward with their struggles and then little Selena Gomez piping in with "Oh yeah, me too kind of! LOL!" But while Zeta-Jones' and Lovato's "coming out" represent the good kind of celeb advocacy, even these instances may not be completely helpful. As a 2010 article in Medical Observer noted, the disorder's being pushed into the pop culture spotlight can create armchair psychologists. "[C]elebrities willing to come forward and talk publicly about their struggles with bipolar disorder may have resulted in an unusual trend: a growing number of people diagnosing themselves with the condition," the article noted. So clearly even positive bumps in awareness can have negative side effects. Consider the implications of the famously "bi-winning" Charlie Sheen raising money last month for Bipolar Awareness Week.
Celebs will continue to announce their personal struggles for a number of reasons -- among them, drawing attention to the cause, getting attention for themselves and making themselves seem sympathetic. For what it's worth, Gomez was most likely speaking off-the-cuff rather than intentionally trying to co-opt a serious issue for her own benefit. (I mean, she didn't go so far as to say that "Bipolar disorder is like my album, 'A Year Without Rain' -- available in stores everywhere.") But for the benefit of both her and people who actually suffer from bipolar disorder, she should reconsider which bandwagons she'd like to catch when they roll on by.