For those struggling with mental illness, a diagnosis can change how you see yourself — often for the better. It’s a label that helps you make sense of your symptoms, somewhere concrete to moor emotions that often make you feel out of control. While some people resist labels and grapple with them, others feel validated.
Personally, they provided me with relief. When I was hospitalized in the early 2000s and diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, something I had long suspected was confirmed. Language allowed me to make some meaning of the situation and take control of my own mental health narratives. A diagnosis let me work toward healing.
Gomez has built her career as a musician and actor on kindness and honesty and appearing as an all-American girl. Part of Gomez’s goal in “My Mind & Me” is to deconstruct this image.
But it can also bring conflicting feelings. Selena Gomez, in the new documentary “Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me,” explores how a bipolar disorder diagnosis changed her life and led her on a pathway to healing. But it wasn’t initially clear to her that knowing what ailed her would be a welcome development. “I didn’t know how I’d cope with my diagnosis,” she says early on in the film, out on Apple+ Friday.
Gomez admitted that she didn’t want to seek treatment at first. “I’m gonna be honest, I didn’t wanna go to the mental health hospital,” she says in the documentary. “I didn’t want to, but I didn’t want to be trapped in myself and my mind anymore. I thought my life was over; I thought, ‘This is what my life’s going to be like forever.’”
Gomez has built her career as a musician and actor on kindness and honesty and appearing as an all-American girl. Part of Gomez’s goal in “My Mind & Me,” which was directed by Alek Keshishian, is to deconstruct this image, to show how mental health struggles can make you seem like an alien to yourself. Part of healing is to understand your condition and embrace all the myriad selves it entails. She wants to be transparent about her mental health condition in order to inspire others and help them feel less alone.
But she’s not totally transparent. Throughout the film, we see a lot of standard celebrity documentary fare — Gomez is anxious about performing during her 2016 Revival Tour; she breaks down because she’s worried she’s not good enough; we find out her relationship with her mother is complicated; she experiences the violation of aggressive paparazzi who hound her about her past relationship with Justin Bieber and accuse her of partying.
Gomez doesn’t owe us any specific details, but I was still disappointed that she chose to speak only in generalities and vagaries. We see her lying in bed a lot — and for anyone who has ever suffered from depression or anxiety, you know that’s code for things are not that rosy. But sometimes it’s difficult to parse what’s exhaustion from her career and exhaustion from her health struggles. Perhaps that’s the point.
However, one particular scene underscores how external pressures have forced Gomez to tread carefully — and speaks to how people suffering from mental health issues are still encouraged to speak in abstractions and generalities or focus on the positive. Gomez is working on writing a speech she’s going to give when she accepts the McLean Award from the prestigious psychiatric Massachusetts hospital. She wants to talk about her diagnosis of bipolar disorder when an assistant steps in with some shockingly ignorant advice.
“No one thinks that you need to say that, ‘bipolar.’ You’re 27 years old and you’ve got plenty of time to tell the world that exact thing,” the assistant says. “Unless you are determined that now is the time you want it out … [but] that becomes the narrative, right there.”
Gomez is definitely not pleased to hear that response coming from someone on her team — and I’m not either. It’s a poignant moment in which a supposed ally steps in to tell a grown woman it would be best for her to keep quiet. In the video clip of the McLean event that’s included in the documentary, Gomez doesn’t speak up about her bipolar disorder. She eventually shares her diagnosis on a livestream on Instagram with singer Miley Cyrus in 2020, about a year later.
Moments like this highlight how risky it still is for a celebrity to be candid about mental health. Revealing a diagnosis — however personally empowering — can be used against a person (most recently, Amber Heard’s reported diagnosis of borderline personality disorder was disturbingly leveraged against her during Johnny Depp’s defamation trial). Stigma is real. And the only way to break the stigma is to keep educating the public.
Footage of Gomez’s journey to speak at a school in Kenya shows how passionate she is about mental health education. The documentary juxtaposes this meaningful visit with a segment in which Gomez must make the rounds on talk shows and sit through inane interviews where people ask her stupid questions.
“I feel like a product,” she says after a particularly upsetting interview in which she believes she has not truly been heard. “She didn’t even pay attention to what I was saying.”
People suffering from mental health issues are still encouraged to speak in abstractions and generalities or focus on the positive.
The commodification of people as brands has robbed everyone of the opportunity to be truly authentic while also rendering us completely cynical. For a celebrity who once had the most followed Instagram account, the performance of an identity versus the reality of it is crucial to understanding Gomez’s mental health advocacy.
“I’m at peace. I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m confident. I’m full of doubt. I’m a work in progress,” Gomez says at the end of the film, illustrating how the journey is never over, the narrative is still writing itself.
In a recent Rolling Stone interview intended to promote the documentary, Gomez speaks more candidly about her mental health struggles than in the documentary itself, explaining that she might not be able to have children if she stays on her current medication and recalling how she had forgotten certain words while on medications that were perhaps unnecessarily prescribed.
While Gomez’s path toward healing might have begun with a diagnosis, her public advocacy journey is still nascent. She is clear that her recovery is a work in progress and the key to healing is authentic connection with others. But as the documentary asks: In a climate like Hollywood, where authenticity is often a performance, is this possible?