Stress and Celebrities: the cost of having it all

It can for some, seem a little counterintuitive that many of those that have made it in the public eye and our biggest stars, are amongst the highly stressed and have mental health difficulties.

Truth is this comes as no surprise. Dusty Springfield, in the 60s and 70s, was quite open about having to see a psychiatrist before she went on stage. The high levels of drug misuse amongst the famous are not simply a reflection of lifestyle. In common with the rest of the population, they are often a way of self-medicating to deal with their particular pressures of their celebrity status.

So what are the root causes of this stress? Surely to have fame, adoration and in many cases, riches places people in a far better position than someone stacking shelves in Lidl. The problem is stress is relative to the circumstances we find ourselves and virtually all human activity has an element of stress. Even success itself, is by its nature stressful however and the near constant exposure, the competitive nature of one’s occupational activity and the demands for high performance (literally and figuratively), however, desired and sought, take their toll.

Celebrities and their relationship with the “public eye”, is a complex phenomenon in itself. One minute you can be the flavour of the month; the next you can be fundamentally rejected. The human psyche is well programmed to avoid rejection at all costs which often see celebrities “reinventing” themselves, cutting and slashing with surgeon’s knives and doing everything else necessary to maintain public appeal. Equally, many often feel they must retain their vision of youth, vigour and competitiveness that maintains their image through time. Existentially, they are confronted with age and decline just as the rest of us are, however their identity is in part based on public perception. That perception is typically formed from their visual images, stored for posterity at the time of youth and vigour. They are confronted with how much they are losing and that can create many dilemmas.

Child stars have real difficulty making the transition to adulthood. Having made it young, they’re often exposed to a lifestyle that is difficult to maintain as their childlike appeal wanes and raw adult talent does not necessarily come in substitution. “Whatever happened to Baby Jane”, can happen to any “cute” starlet left Home Alone long enough…

Then there is the survival anxiety of making sure one does not incur social disapproval by being caught by one of the billions of smartphones, CCTV’s or other recording devices that we have in our society that are trained on people. Their lives are very public in so many ways and dropping one’s guard, can often have massive consequences as some photographer readily snaps and sells the picture of one’s unzipped fly, or unfortunate facial grimace taken from an opportune angle whilst eating pasta.

For the uber successful, there are additional pressures of exposure burnout, Hollywood likes competitiveness and often the control of contracts. Many often seek personal physicians and just as it with the compliance relationship that exists between patient and GP in the NHS, the pressure for those physicians to prescribe to them at times of difficulty, where every small malaise becomes great indeed. It’s no accident that we saw the demise of people like Michael Jackson and Prince in these circumstances.

The problem of great public success and exposure is that the forces that often make individuals seek fame are narcissistic in nature. Some people enter stardom with a tendency to the neurotic anyway and success simply pushes all of the buttons. The adoration of millions is often a form of narcissism in itself, but it is a shallow, ephemeral attachment of which there is always an anxiety to maintain less one falls from favour. Stresses are amplified by limits of one’s own interpersonal skills repertoire where the capacity to generate meaningful, close bonds in individual relationships is poor or has been damaged. It may be there is disproportionate emphasis upon a very small population, but the advent of major celebrity partnership breakdowns after relatively short periods is legendary. People may make the covers of “hello” magazine and be in the public eye, but behind closed doors, often life can be empty and unfulfilling, even chaotic and unstable.

Many celebrities, seek the support of coaches and others such as myself because they find the activity offers something more than a simple mental health service. It offers the opportunity to reflect on life, re-evaluate values, look at balancing their ambitions and the demands of their role against other, sometimes neglected aspects of life and ultimately work harder on self-acceptance than they have done hitherto. Many find the here and now approach of this type of support much more important than therapy to interrogate their past. Their problems are manifesting in the moment and childhood insights therapy, whilst valuable over time, do not address the stage you are about to walk onto tonight.

In common with great riches, great fame is not natural to the human condition. Once the criteria laid down in our implicit evolutionary survival thresholds have been achieved and stabilised, many people, are happy with humbler achievements in life and develop a richness through the choice that comes from being away from the glare of public expectation. In short, the acquisition of fame and fortune is often in its own right something that mature people would not necessarily focus upon single-mindedly to the exclusion of other aspects of their lives. For the many celebrities who know this and have made that transition, they age gracefully and as celebrities become household names and institutions and they evolve, age and ultimately die alongside their audiences who cherish them as an integral part of the lifespans we all share. Those that can achieve this can achieve real richness, those that do not, always have the plastic surgeons, lawyers and clinics to go to.