Health & Fitness

When celebs talk frankly about their illnesses, people listen

On a recent album, Kanye West raps about how crazy being off Lexapro can make a person.
On a recent album, Kanye West raps about how crazy being off Lexapro can make a person. AP

Never underestimate the power of celebrities to bring attention to issues related to disease and mental illness —especially when it’s their own. In the last few weeks, three of the entertainment and sports worlds’ most polarizing figures — Charlie Sheen, Ronda Rousey and Kanye West — have made stark revelations about serious conditions with which they are dealing.

No doubt, all three had their own reasons for making their disclosures in the manners and venues in which they did. But beyond what each one’s struggles may mean for their futures, it’s instructive to examine how what they said might move the needle on public discourse about these life-and-death subjects.

Charlie Sheen

We’ve known since last November that the 50-year-old actor was HIV-positive. Back then, he rejected the notion that he’d become the new millennium “poster boy” for HIV/AIDS. But in mid-February, he spoke on The Dr. Oz Show about his treatment travails. Specifically, that he had been “duped” into traveling to Mexico for unproven “alternative” treatments that proved wholly ineffective.

Sheen went off his antiviral meds in favor of two months of treatments supervised by Dr. Samir Chachoua (who claimed on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher that “arthritic goats’ milk” would not only cure Sheen’s HIV but that his treatment had eradicated HIV for the past decade on a small island nation in Africa).

After telling Oz that his HIV numbers had increased (and excoriating Chachoua in the process), Sheen said he was hoping to qualify for an experimental treatment regimen — one being done by an above-board medical firm in Canada.

So Sheen’s appearance not only drove home the message to stay away from unlicensed “doctors” offering miracle “cures,” it also alerted folks to news that the Vancouver company CytoDyn (whose president also appeared on the show) may be on the verge of a breakthrough in how HIV is treated.

But perhaps most important of all, an article that ran in the Journal of the American Medical Association called Sheen’s disclosure “the most significant HIV prevention event in our nation’s history.” It also said that, in the immediate aftermath of Sheen’s announcement, there were 2.75 million more online searches related to HIV detection and prevention than would have been expected during that time.

Ronda Rousey

Beyond being the UFC’s most popular mixed martial artist, Ronda Rousey has become a mainstream star, appearing on late-night talk shows and garnering Hollywood acting roles. Before her stunning knockout defeat last fall to Holly Holm, Rousey’s life as an undefeated champion seemed pretty ideal.

But, as she tearfully revealed on The Ellen Degeneres Show last month, right after that bout, before she could even receive medical treatment, she contemplated suicide.

“Once I got in the medical room and I was down in the corner, I was like, ‘What am I anymore if I’m not this?’ ” she explained. “I was literally sitting there and thinking about killing myself, and that exact second I’m like, ‘I’m nothing. What do I do anymore?’ 

What made Rousey’s comments especially poignant — and alarming — is that she’s a child of suicide: Both her father and grandfather killed themselves (her father when she was very young).

Rousey quickly assured Degeneres that the dark thoughts passed and she’s now more motivated than ever to regain her title belt.

Equally, if not more, significant were her later comments to TMZ that not only was she not ashamed of her suicidal thoughts, but that she wanted to help de-stigmatize the entire topic. Rousey encouraged others to discuss their suicidal feelings and seek help if they needed it.

“It’s … not something like a weakness that we should condemn,” she told the gossip site.

Kanye West

West has never been the most stable cat. But in recent weeks, his behavior — both in person and via social media — has grown especially erratic.

Meltdowns on Twitter.

Audio recordings of him blasting Taylor Swift.

The infamous tirade on the Saturday Night Live set.

Keen observers of “Yeezy” have noted that, in his recently released The Life of Pablo album, on one track he raps “I been outta my mind a long time” and on FML he raps about how crazy being off Lexapro can make a person.

Lexapro is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor anti-depressant, prescribed to treat depression and general anxiety.

Experts warn that going off any of the same sort of anti-depressant should be done gradually — and under a doctor’s supervision.

Stopping suddenly — as West may well have done — is a recipe for a mental health disaster.

It would also help explain his recent behavior.

And perhaps just as importantly, it introduces, however tangentially, to a generation of millennials the subjects of anti-depressant medication and mental illness.

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