Seven Mental Health Icons For 2021
Illustrations by Mr Anthony Gerace
This has been an extraordinary year for mental health. We still have a mountain to climb in terms of taking the stigma out of opening up about our struggles, and making access to help and support easy and equitable, but there is no denying that this year more of us talked about our mental wellbeing more often.
Among a flurry of recent reports into mental wellbeing and the impact of Covid, a pattern has emerged. Anxiety, loneliness and stress are on the rise, as are the conditions that exacerbate them (money worries, job loss, social isolation). Most sobering are the World Health Organization’s figures on suicide: one in every 100 deaths is by suicide and men are twice as likely to commit take their own lives as women.
Our seven icons have understood the need and taken a leap for mental health this year, either through bold advocacy, or relentlessly unpicking the stigma that smothers constructive conversation around what good mental health care looks like, or sharing honestly their experiences.
Treat this as an inspiration piece. You may find something in the actions of our icons that will help you set your mental health intentions for the coming year.
Mr Dax Shepard, being honest about relapse
Mr Dax Shepard. Photograph by Mr Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images
What do you do when things go wrong? That was the question Mr Dax Shepard faced this year. After famously struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, the actor and comedian just as famously achieved sobriety. As the years he spent clean racked up to 16, he became an unofficial champion for many who were seeking to change their relationship with addiction. It was often and honestly discussed on Armchair Expert, the long-running podcast he hosts with Ms Monica Padman.
The show usually features guests such as former US president Mr Barack Obama, Ms Hillary Clinton, Prince Harry and Dr Jane Goodall, but late last year, in an episode entitled “Day 7”, Shepard laid bare how he had brought 16 years of sobriety to an end with the prescription drug Vicodin following his father’s death and a motorcycle accident. It was 48 minutes of searing honesty, which included the admission that he was high while celebrating the 16th anniversary of his sobriety.
Shepard opened the podcast with a list of what scared him about being honest. “Some people will feel a sense of betrayal because we preach honesty and I was being dishonest,” he said. “I have a fear financially that companies that would want me to represent them would now not. And most importantly, the cornerstone of my self-esteem, other than the children, is that we have this podcast and a lot of people have been inspired to try sobriety.”
It would have been easier for Shepard to say nothing about his relapse and quietly get back on the wagon. After all, his recovery is his affair. But a friend told him that if he really wanted to help people, telling the truth would be a lot more helpful than holding on to the idea of 16 years of sobriety that Shepard had convinced himself people aspired to.
Shepard’s mea culpa gave us permission to be vulnerable and imperfect, to know that it is OK to mess up. And since recovery is rarely linear, that is a truth more of us need to know.
Ms Simone Biles, leading by example and saying no
Ms Simone Biles. Photograph by Ms Ashley Landis/Shutterstock
If there were a watershed moment in the discussion around mental health this year, Ms Simone Biles’ Olympics was it. In the early stages of the team gymnastics competition at Tokyo 2020, Biles withdrew. For the most decorated living gymnast, this was huge.
“My mind and body are not in sync,” she said, a simple statement that revealed her acute understanding of the role that mental wellbeing played in her performances. She chose not to put herself at risk of injury, or her teammates at risk of losing out on a medal. And in that decision, she shifted the debate around the expectations we put on ourselves and others to tough it out. “Being the best also means knowing how to take care of yourself,” said Mr Kyle Andrews, chief brand officer at Athleta, Biles’ sports brand partner. “We stand by Simone and support her wellbeing.”
In a Q&A session hosted by AthletaWell, a community platform for Athleta, Biles talked about her decisions. “Not a lot of people can relate to being an elite athlete,” she said. “But a lot of people can relate to mental health. Once I had taken a step back, I was expecting to feel a lot of backlash and embarrassment, but it was the complete opposite and that’s the first time that I’ve felt human – like, besides Simone Biles, I was Simone and people respected that. I know that I helped a lot of people to speak out about mental health and saying no.”
Mr Dan Carden, speaking out about identity and addiction
Mr Dan Carden. Photograph by Mr Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock
During a quiet UK parliamentary debate on this year’s Pride Month, Mr Dan Carden, Labour MP for Liverpool Walton, rose to make a surprising speech. It was full of personal revelations, struggle, vulnerability, honesty and care. He opened his speech with a charge to young LGBTQIA+ people to “be proud of who you are and who you choose to love”. He spoke about his struggle for identity and self-acceptance and his struggles with mental health and alcohol addiction that twice, in his twenties, put his life at risk.
“It took repeated interventions from the people who really loved me,” he said. “I denied I had a problem. I suppressed my emotions, as I’d learnt to do as a kid. Alcohol addiction isn’t about drinking every day or drunkenness. For me, it was about losing who I was over a long period of time. It was using a drug – alcohol – to feel better, but ultimately to escape and giving up on living.”
The speech grabbed headlines, filled newsfeeds and took the often compassionless, judgment-filled conversations we have around addiction to a place of feeling and empathy.
Carden remains committed to making conversations about mental ill health and addiction mainstream. “Addiction is still a taboo, this thing we don’t really talk about,” he says. “The shame and stigma attached to addiction prevent so many people asking for help. It’s important to remember that addiction does not discriminate. Recovery is often misunderstood and kept hidden. This must change. People in recovery are making a real impact in our communities and are capable of great things, but we rarely celebrate it. I’m determined to champion visible recovery.”
Ms Rupi Kaur, making healing poetic
Ms Rupi Kaur. Photograph by Ms Baljit Singh
In April, Ms Rupi Kaur brought the language of mental health, anxiety and healing to an audience of millions as Rupi Kaur Live, her one-hour TV special to celebrate her third book, Home Body, premiered worldwide. Kaur is a poet, illustrator and spoken-word artist who has always tackled the raw side of life – trauma, identity, heartbreak, love – in her books.
Posting on Instagram to announce the release of Home Body, she said, “I wrote while fighting a difficult battle with depression and anxiety. I wrote while getting help. I wrote while getting better.” Home Body tells of her journey from depression to healing. It is a journey that was triggered by anxiety that started in the spring of 2015 when Kaur posted a picture from a school project of menstrual blood stains on her bed on Instagram. “I was waking up to tens of thousands of comments,” she said. “Fifty per cent of them threatened my life.”
“The anxiety set in and it never really left,” she told Mr Tom Power on his Q show on CBC. “I loved the idea of having a book with my name on it, but both physically and mentally it was hard because no one tells you how to prepare. No matter how many times the book hit number one [on the New York Times bestseller list], I felt empty. It was some time in 2019 that I thought, I need to do something and do it quick. I went on a whole journey – meditating, therapy, exercise, eating right. I’d spent my entire life being a bulldozer, powering through harder things than this. In writing Home Body, I realised that nothing is wrong with me. This is what being human is about.”
Prince Harry, popularising mental health conversations
Prince Harry. Photograph by Apple TV+
The Me You Can’t See, presented by Ms Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry, aired on Apple TV+ in May. It was a six-part docuseries that gave people from around the world a platform to tell their mental health stories.
The Duke of Sussex shared his own struggles with mental health in promotional material ahead of the show. “We are born into different lives, brought up in different environments. But our shared experience is that we are all human,” he said. “The majority of us carry some form of unresolved trauma, loss or grief, which feels – and is – very personal. This series will show there is power in vulnerability, connection in empathy and strength in honesty.”
Harry’s own journey has led him to step back from life as a frontline royal to allow himself and his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, to prioritise their mental health.
In the final episode of the series, Harry and Winfrey discuss practical ways we can “move towards a compassionate future that prioritises our emotional wellbeing”. The Me You Can’t See understands that, as a society, we must listen and make space for others to tell their stories, but we must also put new ideas and systems in place that will create real change. “I really hope this series has helped people feel empowered to talk about their own mental health and their overall emotional wellbeing,” said Harry. “We have to create a more supportive culture where physical and mental health can be treated equally because they are one.”
Kid Cudi, turning depression into art
Kid Cudi. Photograph by Mr Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images
The week before Christmas 2020, Kid Cudi released Man On The Moon III: The Chosen, an album that wrestles with his mental health and addiction. Saturday Night Live regular Mr Pete Davidson, who was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 2017, said in a recent interview, “One hundred per cent, I truly believe if Man On The Moon [Kid Cudi’s 2009 debut] didn’t come out, I wouldn’t be here.”
In a Facebook post in 2016, Cudi admitted to fans how hard he was finding his struggle with mental illness and that he was checking into rehab. “I am not at peace,” he wrote. “My anxiety and depression have ruled my life for as long as I can remember. It’s time I fix me.”
His latest release comes after rehab and more than three years clean, but he still faces demons. “Sadness eats away at me sometimes,” he posted in June. “Some days are great, others not so great. I just try to believe God has something better for me.”
In July 2020, Cudi took part in a Well Beings virtual town hall for the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the broadcaster WETA. “We pretend to be happy when there’s a raging violent storm inside of our heart,” he said in his opening speech. “Once it was difficult for me to find the words. I felt like a damaged human swimming in a pool of emotions. I knew I deserved peace and to be happy. I turn my pain into music. And my music is how I am different. And my difference is my power.”
Ms Aisling Bea, breaking taboos around male suicide
Ms Aisling Bea. Photograph by Ms Rekha Garton/Channel 4
This summer, Ms Aisling Bea wrote and starred in the second series of This Way Up, her six-part “dramedy” about depression and suicide.
“I think comedy is the perfect way to push through a taboo,” she said in a pre-Bafta conversation with Mr Tom Allen. “We walk around so afraid of getting upset that we don’t get upset, push through it and be fine the other side.”
When Bea wrote the first series, it was in part driven by the suicide of her father when she was a toddler. “His suicide felt like the opposite of parenting,” she said in 2017. “Abandonment. I didn’t care that he had not been ‘in his right mind’. I didn’t care that men in Ireland don’t talk about their feelings, so instead die of sadness.” Those feelings eventually switched to understanding.
With her series, Bea aims to portray the true mess of life – comedy sitting shoulder to shoulder with tragedy. A great sex life, money, high-flying career, family or great wardrobe won’t make you immune. “I wanted to reflect the reality of most people – someone who isn’t having a terrible life, loads of things aren’t going wrong for them,” she said. “They’re functioning, but it’s tough to get through.”
This Way Up is a daughter’s tribute to her father. A father who “didn’t get to be any older” than Bea was on the day she received her Bafta for Breakthrough Talent in 2020. A father whose loss taught her to love the “vulnerability and tenderness” of men.