Patty Duke, Wentworth Miller, Kehlani and why celebrities talk about their mental health

Huty2035711
American actress Patty Duke taking a break from filming on the set of 'Valley of the Dolls', 24th April 1967.

This week, mental health dominated trending topics. Two celebrities spoke out about their issues, and a pioneer died.

On Tuesday, R&B singer Kehlani posted a photo to Instagram of herself in a hospital bed with an IV in her arm. She admitted she tried to commit suicide, writing, "today I wanted to leave this earth . . . But God saved me for a reason, and for that, I must be grateful."

Also on Tuesday, actor Wentworth Miller, best known for his role as Michael on Fox's Prison Break, spoke out after a publication tweeted a meme poking fun at his past weight gain. The meme featured side-by-side pictures of Miller: In one, he's fit in his Prison Break prime. In the other, he's heavier. The joke read: "When you break out of prison and find out about McDonald's monopoly . . ."

Miller posted an open letter to Facebook saying that at the time the heavier photo was taken, he was battling depression, something he's struggled with since childhood, and was suicidal. He wrote, "I suffered in silence."

"If only [Miller] got something from [the post], that's great," said Matthew Ray, creative director of Philadelphia social-media marketing firm Chatterblast. "But I guarantee there are a lot of people who could relate."

Academy Award-winning actress Patty Duke, who died Tuesday, was one of the first celebrities to share a struggle with mental illness, as she did in 1982, when she revealed she was bipolar.

"She came out with her secret in a time when people were not so revealing about the secrets they had, specifically with mental illness," said Gloria Hochman, a Philadelphia writer who coauthored A Brilliant Madness: Living With Manic Depressive Illness.

According to Hochman, Duke helped pave the way for celebrities and non-celebrities to be vocal about their mental health. "People thought, 'If Patty Duke can do it, so can I,' " she said.

Even so, it's not easy to talk about these issues on a platform like social media.

"When you're talking about people who already have those vulnerabilities and they're in the public eye, it makes [social media] more complicated," said Arthur C. Evans, commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services.

Kehlani felt that firsthand. On Twitter, Chris Brown accused her of faking the attempt for sympathy. Other tweeters agreed.

But Kehlani took an important step by revealing her suicide attempt. Evans said the knee-jerk reaction to periods of depression is to isolate, but it's healthier to seek out others.

In their own way, that's what Kehlani and Miller were doing, just like Duke did more than three decades earlier. They were regaining control, but also creating community, and refusing to isolate themselves despite the stigma.

"[Duke] felt that if a celebrity spoke out, other people would be inspired by it and face their own demons," said Hochman. "Maybe they didn't say it as loud as she did, but they could whisper it."

sballin@philly.com215-854-5054

@sofiyaballin