Psychologist Emma Kenny blasts 'celebrity-washing' of mental illness10/30/2023
Psychologist Emma Kenny blasts ‘celebrity-washing’ that makes mental health issues seem ‘sexy’ as she opens up about how her father took his own life after a battle with depression
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One of the UK’s leading TV psychologists has hit out at the ‘marketing’ of mental health – as she lifts the lid on her own experiences growing up with a parent with a mental illness.
Emma Kenny, who regularly appears on television and is resident therapist on ITV’s This Morning, also called for a change in the way we approach mental health issues, saying: ‘We’ve medicated the whole Western world and we’ve never been as unhappy.’
Kenny’s comments feature in the new series of podcast My Family, Mental Illness and Me produced by charity Our Time, which supports children who have parents with mental illnesses.
One in 10 children are living with an adult who has severe mental health difficulties, according to figures from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, and Our Time offers support and education around the issue.
During her episode, due to air on December 7th, Kenny recounts the traumatic moment her father, who had suffered from psychotic depression, took his own life.
Emma Kenny (pictured left) suffered from depression after dealing with the loss of her father (pictured right) to suicide. She calls for a change in the way society treats mental health disorders, because there is a ‘sexiness’ to the way it is marketed that is not always helpful
‘I went to his house one day, having had this real urge to just go,’ she says. She had been caring for her father, but wanted to take her son out for lunch, she tells host Dr Pamela Jenkins, a public policy researcher who herself grew up with a parent battling mental illness.
‘All of a sudden I had this really uncomfortable feeling and I just dropped my son home and I dashed to my dad’s. I can remember running through the gate and shouting him.’
She ran into the house where she found her father hanging himself in the garage, she says. ‘By the time I got to the garage and cut him down, I was so hysterical. I couldn’t resuscitate him because I wasn’t in the mind space for it.’
She describes the situation as a ‘cataclysmic catastrophe where ultimately I didn’t save him’, saying: ‘that’s something that’s been really difficult to come to terms with, but also something that I’ve had to.’
Kenny describes how the trauma left her feeling suicidal, and said while mental health is regularly talked about in society, there is a ‘sexiness’ to the way it is marketed that’s not always helpful.
‘Honestly, don’t even start with my bugbears of every other celebrity coming out with ADHD or autism,’ she says.
‘Because that makes it acceptable, right? Whereas the true nature of some of these issues is not that somebody’s just struggling with social anxiety. They’re dealing with this extreme condition that is deeply distressing for them and problematic.
‘It blows my mind how we kind of celebrity wash a lot of these things and it’s so untenable and unreachable for people who are actually dealing with the reality of that stuff.’
The TV psychologist suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts after the loss of her father, an event she describes as a ‘cataclysmic catastrophe’
Kenny is disgraced by celebrities marketing mental health concerns as ‘sexy’, making it ‘untenable and unreachable for people who are actually dealing with the reality of that stuff,’ including herself after the loss of her father. Pictured above is Kenny’s tribute tattoo to her father
She says: ‘We don’t really have people in the press with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder’, adding: ‘There’s a sexiness to mental health now. It’s been marketed in a sexy way. You know, ‘Victoria’s Secret model, who also has ADHD’, ‘this TV presenter who’s also autistic’.’
Kenny insists she’s not ‘having a go’ at those people, adding: ‘But let’s not put you in the same category as somebody who genuinely is struggling on a day to day basis enormously.’
Dubbing it a ‘marketing ploy’, she goes on: ‘The more sexy we make it, the more acceptable it is for us to look at. But it’s not actually how it feels for the person who’s dealing with it.’
Kenny also points out the difference between ‘real anxiety and real depression’ and what is often portrayed – saying the terms are often used to describe ‘natural’ feelings like being uncomfortable or sad.
‘Actually with real anxiety and depression, you often don’t want to get out of bed,’ she says. ‘Everything terrifies you. You feel massively overwhelmed…
‘You’ve got to be a warrior because genuinely it’s like stepping through the most incredible mud and trying to swim to wherever we’re going because it’s so painful.’
Kenny, who regularly appears on ITV’s This Morning offering psychological expertise, is furious at the way western society treats mental health issues with medication
She later adds: ‘It’s not generalised anxiety disorder when you can’t go to a party without feeling a bit uncomfortable… That’s actually quite human.’
‘When it’s real anxiety, it’s like you feel like everything possibly is going to be a catastrophe and the world could end any minute, right?
‘We talk about anxiety and depression, but we don’t talk about what it really is for people who really suffer from it. And what is really normal where people think they’re suffering from it, but they’re not suffering from it at all. They’re just normal human beings in a well adjusted state feeling things like nervousness or sadness, because life is sad at times and life is provoking of nerves at other times.
‘But when it comes down to the more harsh reality of mental illness… we don’t have that really in front of us. We don’t have people who people relate to as going ‘oh, actually, I didn’t get out of bed for four weeks’.
Kenny also hit out at the way mental health is medicated, and called for changes to the way issues are approached.
‘Don’t even get me started on the way that we medicate,’ she tells the podcast. ‘We’ve just medicated the whole Western world and we’ve never been as unhappy.
‘And I’m like, ‘when are we gonna wake up and be like, well, maybe that’s because we’re doing it wrong?’ Maybe that’s because the actual things that need to change are not with the person’s internal chemistry.
‘Maybe the person who’s anxious and depressed isn’t actually broken at all. Maybe they’re just reacting to a world around them that isn’t working. Maybe it’s because they’re feeling isolated because they’ve not got a community. Maybe it’s because they feel like they’ve been brought up through a system which made them feel like a failure because they weren’t academic. But actually, they’re brilliant in so many different areas, but they’re just not measured on those areas.
‘Maybe if we could start helping people see that the very things that need to change are external, not internal to some degree, those individuals would find it easier.’
Dympna Cunnane, CEO of Our Time, said up to 4 million children in the UK have a parent with a mental illness and the podcast aims to highlight the issue and raise awareness of the work Our Time does. She said: ‘Our Time charity was set up to represent this large but hidden group of children and young people who are three times more likely to have a mental health problem than their peers. The impact is huge and long lasting, as the podcasts demonstrate.’
My Family, Mental Illness and Me is out now, with weekly episodes featuring renowned personalities including Emma Kenny (due to air on December 7th) as well as professional boxer Cyrus Pattinson, Tory peer Lord James Bethell and Frank Bruno’s daughter Rachel Bruno-Hardy.
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