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Athletes, Actors, Artists, and Others: Celebrities and Famous People with Depression
celebrities with mental illness
Mental Health

Athletes, Actors, Artists, and Others: Celebrities and Famous People with Depression

Depression affects people from all walks of life.

Many health issues are hard to hide. A cut or burn is literally right there on the outside of your skin. A heart attack or stroke can send the victim toppling to the floor. A disease can slowly but clearly ravage the body as it progresses.

Then on the other hand there is depression, an illness of the mind that is invisible. Depression can be as devastating as a more tangible sickness or injury, yet in order for a remedy to be sought, the person suffering with depression must first confront their mental health issues on their own, reveal them, and then seek help. 

In other words, experiencing depression can be a tough business indeed. For those who have the eyes of the world upon them, from famous actors and actresses to musicians to authors to artists to athletes, dealing with depression can be all the more of a challenge given the pressures and scrutiny. Celebrities with depression deserve treatment, help, and support just the same as ordinary citizens with mental health problems, but what they don’t get, by the very nature of their public status, is the opportunity to deal with their depression in an entirely private way. 

Famous people with depression must first therefore build themselves up to a state of readiness to confront their mental health issues. They must seek treatment knowing that at any moment their mental health may become, in that cruelest term of our times when so applied, “a story.”

There is no right or wrong way for celebrities with mental illness to approach their treatment, and they have every right to do so privately (and to hope it stays that way) or to make the matter public. As with any of us, the only wrong way for famous people with mental illness to deal with their mental health conditions is to not seek help and treatment at all.

What is depression, exactly? Is it a mental illness? 

Depression is a diagnosable, clinical medical condition – that’s why it is called a mental illness, not a feeling. Depression is not, therefore, sadness, grief, frustration, anxiety – though debilitating anxiety and panic attacks can be symptoms of the issue, and especially with lasting and major depression issues – or any other unpleasant but ultimately transient emotions. 

According to the Mayo Clinic: “Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. Also called major depressive disorder or clinical depression, it affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. You may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, and sometimes you may feel as if life isn't worth living.”

And what causes depression? Again, not the same things that trigger sadness (say a breakup), grief (the death of a loved one), frustration or anger (a job loss), or anxiety (an upcoming test or interview). 

Depression is caused by one or more of the following traits as laid out by Mayo Clinic experts: 

“Biological differences: People with depression appear to have physical changes in their brains. Brain chemistry: Recent research indicates that changes in the function and effect of… neurotransmitters and how they interact with neural circuits involved in maintaining mood stability may play a significant role in depression and its treatment. 

"Hormones: Changes in the body's balance of hormones may be involved in causing or triggering depression. Hormone changes can result with pregnancy and during the weeks or months after delivery [causing postpartum depression] and from thyroid problems, menopause, or a number of other conditions. Inherited traits. Depression is more common in people whose blood relatives also have this condition.”

A medical issue

Depression is a medical issue, a matter of body and brain function and chemistry, not of mood or attitude. A person just can’t decide to not be depressed, in other words. If you are wondering how to be happy, or at least how to be happier, then there are steps to take. 

However, one should never confuse a lack of satisfaction, a period of grief or sadness, or a period of frustration or anger as the same as chronic depression, because it is a distinct mental health issue, not a feeling. The question is not exactly how to be happy, but rather how to beat depression, and the answers are many, but none of them quick and easy.

One step along the way is to know that however alone depression makes you feel, you are not alone, and there are plenty of other people who know what it feels like to feel so much pain, and yet to keep going – people like these famous people and celebrities who suffered from depression.

Mental health problems among A-list actors 

Actors may spend their lives pretending to be this or that character, but for a star with depression, the hardest acting job of all can be putting on a bright and smiling face when the mind behind it is suffering. 

Robin Williams

Perhaps there is no more poignant example than that of the late great Robin Williams, an actor and comedian who charmed and entertained the world with his unbridled energy and lightning-fast wit.

celebrities with depression and anxiety

He touched hearts with his more serious on screen roles, and all the while was dealing with a depression his entire life – exacerbated by Lewy body disease – so crippling his suicidal thoughts at last gave way to action.

Selena Gomez

Actress and musician Selena Gomez grew up in the spotlight, having started her on camera career at age 10. Having lived most of her life in the public eye, it would have been difficult for her to conceal her mental health issues, but fortunately for the star and for the fans who look up to her, Gomez was always open and frank about her anxiety and depression issues, her bipolar disorder diagnoses, and about the treatment she sought for her mental health. 

She is also self-aware and open that her mental health problems are not about a depressive episode or two, but may be lifelong struggles, as reported by Psycom.

Dwayne Johnson

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is one of the all-time top earning box office stars and is known the world over for his strength and seemingly boundless energy, yet several years ago Johnson revealed to CNBC that he had dealt with years of what he called a deep depression as a young man. 

Do you look at Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as any less impressive of a human being knowing he has battled mental illness at various times of his life? Do you respect him less for being forthright about mental health issues? 

No, you surely don’t, surely just the opposite in fact – for as strong in physique and personality as Johnson may be, the strongest thing he has done is to have experienced depression, worked through it, and shared about it, thereby helping others to do the same.

Kristen Bell

Actress Kristen Bell has dealt with depression and mood disorders for most of her adult life and in recent years has been quite open about her mental health.

celebrities with depression
(Axelle/Bauer-Griffin / Contributor / Getty)

But indeed she deals with depression by being so self-aware and attuned that she not only usually minimizes the severity of an episode but even staves it off by using a careful balance of medications, mental health check-ins, and therapies as needed.

Wayne Brady

Yet another gentleman whose role in life is to make us laugh yet whose lot in life is, in part, dealing with depression is comedian Wayne Brady, who revealed to CNN that it was not until he was 42 years old that he finally accepted the fact that he needed help with his mental health struggles. In fact, for Brady it was the suicide of Robin Williams that prompted him to seek help and to open up, and he hopes his and others having done so will help others do the same.

The list goes on

Beyond the celebrities mentioned above, there are plenty of others on the list as well. Depression affects pop star and Academy Award winning actress Lady Gaga, reality TV star Kendall Jenner, songstress Adele, and even the always smiling Ryan Reynolds. Chrissy Tiegan opened up about her really bad postpartum depression. And if you thought postpartum depression meant only feeling it with the first child, you’d be wrong, as Drew Barrymore explained in Today’s Parent.

Mental health issues among top tier athletes

Professional athletes are, by the very nature of their life’s work, in peak physical condition. But it often happens that behind a strong, able body lurks a mind suffering with depression. 

And just as actors are often under intense scrutiny, so too are professional athletes, and with the added pressure to perform perfectly under this observation. 

Simone Biles

Little surprise that the pressure of a global audience exacerbated the mental health issues of gymnast Simone Biles during the 2021 Summer Olympics in Japan, briefly prompting the athlete to withdraw from competition to focus on her mental health. 

famous people with mental illnesses
(LOIC VENANCE / Contributor / Getty)

And little wonder she and other gymnasts from Team USA were afflicted with depression and trauma for years following the abuses suffered at the hands of the very doctor who should have been protecting them. 

Michael Phelps

Multi-time Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps is yet another athlete who was both at the absolute top of his game (literally – he was the winningest swimmer ever) and yet dealt with crippling low points mentally and emotionally speaking. 

Phelps was so deep into his depression that he turned to substance abuse, was hit with DUI arrests, and often had thoughts of suicide, according to Insider. He has also revealed in recent years that sharing about his depression and the harmful behavior it led to has been a help.

Ricky Williams

And pro footballer Ricky Williams overcame crushing depression and social anxiety disorder that had been amplified by his surge to fame in his early 20s. “"I was 23, a millionaire and had everything, yet I was never more unhappy in my life," Williams said in ADAA, adding: "I felt extremely isolated from my friends and family because I couldn't explain to them what I was feeling. I had no idea what was wrong with me." Therapy has helped William, and he is determined to tell others they too can rise up from mental illness.

Depression among world-renowned artists

The arts have no lack of people who have suffered from depression, and little wonder, as both the act of creating artwork and the experience of depression are often lonely. There are the more extreme cases, such as that of Mark Rothko, who took his own life in the year 1970 after a career that has seen him called one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. 

There was the lonely life of Vincent Van Gogh who died under still not-quite-clear circumstances (a likely suicide, but a possible accidental shooting) after lifelong depression and without ever knowing that the world would soon embrace his work.

famous people with depression
(Fine Art / Contributor / Getty)

And then of course we have a long list of musicians who suffered from deep, lasting depression. Some poured much of their depression into their work, such as the magnificent but moody Kurt Cobain of Nirvana who took his own life at just 27 years old. There is Brian Wilson who went from being the very anchor of The Beach Boys to being so depressed and disassociated he could hardly rise from bed and, on doing so, often turned to drugs and alcohol. That is, until he turned to therapy and medication that helped stabilize his depression. 

And in the words, guitar, and very tone of singer-songwriter Nick Drake you can hear a depression with which he was never helped. He died at age 26 after an overdose of pills – a likely suicide – after suffering for years. With help, he could very well be alive and well today.

Famous people from history with depression

It is impossible to properly diagnose someone who is deceased with a mental illness, no doctor or mental health specialist able to analyze the person fully. But based on the mountains of data we now have on mental health and depression, it becomes easier to see in many famous figures of the past at least a very high likelihood of what we would today classify as depression.

President Abraham Lincoln almost surely suffered with depression at various times in his life, according to NPR, as evidenced by myriad factors, including similar mental health issues in many of his relatives, his tendency to be withdrawn and taciturn, his own admonition of occasional suicidal thoughts, and of course by all the immense pressures on the man, from his own family tragedies to the very Civil War itself in which he and his government were so fully embroiled.

celebrities who suffered from depression
(Hulton Archive / Stringer / Getty)

Brilliant mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton is known to have dealt with many episodes of depression. Charles Dickens apparently fell into depression with every new book he wrote, according to Ranker. Ludwig Van Beethoven almost surely would have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder were he alive today, having experienced many extreme manic highs and deep depressive episodes.

And in an ironic twist, given his life’s work trying to understand the mind and help others with their mental and emotional issues, psychotherapist and author Sigmund Freud was at times deeply depressed. The difference here is that he knew it well, even referring to his own “severe depression.” 

Depression does not discriminate – Neither does treatment

Famous people who suffer from depression have two things entirely in common with non-famous people dealing with mental illness: beyond the shared mental health issues themselves, both sets of people have the same options for treating their mental health conditions. Among the first steps should always be seeking help from a mental health professional, but also critical in seeking to rise up from depression is to separate the illness from the self.

It’s too easy to become defined by mental health issues, and in fact that’s a major reason many celebrities hesitate to reveal their affliction. But famous or not, you must keep in mind that depression may be a fact of your life, but it need not be the frame of your life. You can accept that you have mental health issues and seek help with them while also moving ahead with other parts of your existence. 

And should you find you are experiencing depression so profoundly that indeed it does prohibit all other aspects of your life from progressing, you can accept that too and dedicate yourself to dealing with it until it is reduced at least enough that you can get back in motion. Therapy, medication, meditation, communication, self-care – the list goes on, but it only matters if you take steps to take charge in that battle with depression.

It’s what famous people and non-famous folks alike would hope for you.

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