On the most recent season of Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of New York,” which wrapped last month, viewers learned that the newest cast member, Leah McSweeney, has a bipolar disorder.
How this information was revealed is key. Show veteran Ramona Singer simply blurts it out — on camera but behind McSweeney’s back, which is one of those bizarre circumstances of reality television wherein gossip is an activity both furtive and public all at once.
Singer is a master at concern trolling — a faux sympathetic posture that’s really an act of passive aggression — but the subtext this time out was so clearly rooted in stigmatizing McSweeney while also making uninformed assumptions about how her diagnosis was being managed.
“For her to be talking (about my mental health) in this way is despicable,” McSweeney later said.
Celebrity health disclosures can shape how we think and talk about the world, which is why Rachelle Pavelko, a professor at Bradley University in Peoria, is specifically examining this most recent season of “RHONY” for her latest research.
“Broadly speaking, I’m studying how the media portrays mental illness and what impact that has on the audience,” she said. “If you don’t have individual experience with mental health issues, either directly or through people you’re close to, the media is most likely informing a lot of your understanding about mental health. And looking at a show like ‘The Housewives’ might seem really silly or surface level, but when you think about it, that’s a really realistic way that people are coming to make their own individual judgments.”
Pavelko is interested not in only how mental illness is stigmatized in the media, but also trivialized. “Something like obsessive-compulsive disorder is almost seen as this beneficial diagnosis,” she said, "so you get this commentary like, ‘You’re so lucky to be so organized,’ as if those trivial behaviors are the full representation of the illness; Khloé Kardashian is the poster child for this.
“And there’s a really interesting aspect of that kind of trivializatin on this season of ‘The Real Housewives of New York’ in particular. There’s been so many discussions about addiction issues — they throw around the term ‘alcoholic’ so often and so loosely as this cutting jab when the person actually does seem like they have a drinking problem. But the way the women are handling it, it doesn’t seem like they really want that person to get help.”
As for McSweeney and her bipolar disorder, “Romana threw this out as an insult: ‘I don’t like you because you’re basically acting crazy.’” It also discounts the possibility that a new cast member might have other reasons for erratic behavior, such as: They’re being constantly followed around by cameras for the first time. Filming these shows has to feel like a high-intensity experience.
The thing about reality TV — and the “Real Housewives” franchise goes hard on this — is that it’s never clear if producers are intentionally casting people with possibly undiagnosed mental health issues (so much depression, so much anxiety) in order for them to be exploited for drama on the show.
“There’s a lot of that going on,” said Pavelko, “and whether from a manipulative standpoint or not, production can definitely feel that and say, ‘This person seems to be struggling a lot and if they’re willing to open up their lives to us and exposing some of their trauma, that’s going to make for great TV.’”
Pavelko wants to know if this season of “RHONY” inspired treatment behaviors: “Does watching Dorinda” — a cast member who displayed turbulent emotional responses this season — “make you want to go to therapy?”
“All three of us went to UNC together in grad school and Jessica Myrick and I have both previously studied celebrity illness disclosures and death from a health communication perspective,” said Willoughby. "So we’re interested in: What happens? Do people actually talk more about the health topic? Do they go out and seek treatment?
“We knew that there was even more going on here than the health topic, specifically because of who Chadwick Boseman was and the impact he had on the Black community. So we reached out to Meredith, whose work really focuses on the intersection of race, media and power, and we thought, together, we could study what impact this is having on people in terms of their emotional responses and also potential implications for health communications going forward. So it’s not just, oh there’s a person who passed away, isn’t that sad? We’re really interested in, what did his death spark in people? What did it make them want to talk about, want to explore and want to do because of this context we’re in — with equity, race, social justice — and the person that he was?”
Once they analyze the results of their survey, what can do with that information?
“We know that a celebrity’s announcement of a health issue — or passing — can impact people,” Willoughby said. “So the part that’s tricky is, how do you use that information for the betterment of public health and society? If you’re emotionally raw because of this news, you may not want information right at the moment about prevention methods and how you should go get screened for cancer. So understanding everything that goes into how people respond can influence public health messaging.”
When she said this, it occurred to me that certain celebrities really can move the needle. I was specifically thinking back to that the moment in March when Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced their coronavirus diagnosis. Somehow, that piece of news seemed to drive home why a shutdown was imminent and the seriousness of what would eventually become a pandemic.
“Actually, if you want to talk about that, I’ll have some published research coming out in a few months,” Willoughby said. “Jessica and I actually looked at this 24 hours after his disclosure, because Tom Hanks is America’s everyman and we were really interested in whether it affected people’s preventative behaviors. If you see Tom Hanks experiencing this, do you feel more confident that you can and should engage in preventative behaviors?”
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