21 Highly Successful, Inspiring People with Mental Health Challenges
March 28, 2017
Quote turn your wounds into wisdom, oprah winfrey

While modern civilization has come a long way in terms of understanding and ameliorating mental health challenges, we still have much work to do!  Despite the fact that over 25% of people in the US have received some form of psychological treatment, there remains much stigma.  Unfortunately, this stigma, along with other barriers like cost, prevent many folks from engaging in behavioral health interventions, despite the likely benefits. Even in places like the San Francisco Bay Area, where it seems like therapists outnumber lay people, it’s still not so common for people to openly talk about being in therapy.  

At HealthyPsych, we think this needs to change.  Our belief is that all people – no matter where you fall on the continuum of psychological health – can benefit from at least some amount of emotional growth and/or healing work.  Whether it’s formal therapy, going to AA meetings, engaging in spiritual practices, participating in movement arts, reading self-help books, or any other number of ‘body-mind exercises’ that open our hearts and sharpen our minds, tending to our mental health is just as important as our physical health (with the two being mutually reinforcing).

With that said, we felt inspired to compile a list of people who were highly successful in spite of, or perhaps even because of, their mental health struggles. While not an exhaustive list, nor the first of its kind, we hope this serves as a reminder that all people have personal struggles; that it’s important to not view these as just deficits; and that we should continue striving for a world where mental health is viewed and talked about with the same candor as physical health.

1.) Abraham Lincoln –  Clinical Depression, PTSD

This twice-elected and historically celebrated U.S. president was known for his melancholy behavior; if alive today, he would be diagnosed with clinical depression. Historians theorize that Lincoln’s depression may have helped him politically, humanizing and drawing sympathy from the public, whereas today such a condition would be treated as a liability. Despite suffering two major depressive episodes, several deaths of loved ones (including his son Willie during his second term as president), and at one time declaring, “I am now the most miserable man living,” Lincoln is remembered as a monumental figure in the history of the United States.

“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have.” – Abraham Lincoln

2.) Alvin Ailey – Bipolar, Substance Abuse

This modern dance pioneer founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958 with the intent to work and perform with the most talented dancers regardless of race. Always secretive about his sexual identity and under pressure from public success, Ailey began to abuse drugs and alcohol before suffering from a mental breakdown in 1980 followed by a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Despite his health struggles and eventual death in 1989, Ailey’s legacy lives on through his dance company and his choreography which continues to be performed some 60 years later.

“I am trying to show the world that we are all human beings and that color is not important. What is important is the quality of our work.” – Alvin Ailey

3.) Ben Zobrist – Depression, Anxiety

A two-time World Series champion in consecutive seasons, 2015 with the Kansas City Royals and 2016 with the Chicago Cubs, Zobrist has proven himself a versatile, talented baseball player. For an athlete with multimillion dollar contracts, a beautiful family, and the title of 2016 World Series MVP, career-threatening depression doesn’t fit the picture. However, in his autobiography Zobrist writes of crippling anxiety and depression he experienced after being sent back to the minor leagues in 2007 that nearly destroyed his passion for baseball. Zobrist survived by leaning on his friends and renewing his faith, leaning into support networks to bring him back to his game.

Each new day has a different shape to it. You just roll with it.” – Ben Zobrist

4.) Brian Wilson – Schizoaffective Disorder, Bipolar

As lead singer of the iconic American music group The Beach Boys, Wilson stands out as the musical soul of the band that swept the 1960s generation. As their success grew, so did Wilson’s seclusion and by the early 70s he was abusing drugs, spending months at a time in bed, and overeating until he weighed more than 300 lbs. More recently, Wilson has revealed his mental health struggles include a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder involving auditory hallucinations, paranoia and distortions of reality. Music is still what makes him happiest and for this reason he has no plans to retire; instead, he looks forward to continual creation and performance.

“I’m not a genius. I’m just a hard-working guy.” – Brian Wilson

5.) Brooke Shields – Postpartum Depression

Shields is an American actress, model, and former child star famous for her roles in the film Pretty Baby (1978), The Blue Lagoon (1980), Endless Love (1981), and the sitcom Suddenly Susan. In the spring of 2005, Shields went public about her struggle with postpartum depression following the birth of her daughter in 2003.The illness followed a stressful period of miscarriage and fertility issues, the death of her father, and a traumatic childbirth. Her book, Down Came the Rain, chronicles her experience and contributes to public awareness of postpartum depression. Brooke also discussed her experience as a child of an alcoholic mother in her memoir published in 2015, There was a Little Girl.

“I’ve never found therapy to be a sign of weakness; I’ve found the opposite to be true. The willingness to have a mirror held up to you definitely requires strength.” – Brooke Shields

6.) Carrie Fisher – Bipolar, Substance Abuse

Much more than the sci-fi Princess of Star Wars, Fisher had famous wit and was a powerful force in demystifying mental illness. First diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her mid-twenties, Fisher did not accept the diagnosis until she got sober at 28 after a near-fatal overdose and alcohol addiction. Her 2008 autobiographical humor book, Wishful Drinking, is based on her one-woman stage show and in 2010 became a feature-length documentary. She has several other books including her 1987 novel, Postcards from the Edge, detailing her time in rehab and her second memoir, the Princess Diarist. Her raw, honest writing and willingness to tackle difficult subjects with transparency helped transform her into a role model, especially for those with mental illness.

“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.” – Carrie Fisher

7.) Catherine Zeta-Jones – Bipolar II

Zeta-Jones is a Welsh movie star who has been acting, dancing, and performing since she was a child. In her teens, she studied musical theatre at the Arts Educational Schools in London and found success both on the stage and screen before relocating to Los Angeles to further her career. In 1998, she gained Hollywood notoriety as the female lead in The Mask of Zorro and the following year with Entrapment. As one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood during the early 2000s, Zeta-Jones relied heavily on her sex appeal, but has been appreciated later for her versatility on both set and stage. The stress of her husband’s cancer diagnosis in 2011 eventually led Zeta-Jones to check into a mental health facility to treat her bipolar II disorder. The actress’ openness about the diagnosis has been heralded as an effort to reduce stigma around the mental illness.

“If my revelation of having bipolar II has encouraged one person to seek help, then it is worth it. There is no need to suffer silently and there is no shame in seeking help.” -Catherine Zeta-Jones

8.) Charlize Theron – PTSD, OCD

A South African and American actress and film producer, Theron received an Academy Award for her leading role in Monster in 2003 and was nominated again in 2005 for her performance in the sexual harassment-themed drama North Country. The star has talked about living with her anxiety-based obsessive-compulsive disorder and it wasn’t until her early 30s that she saw the benefits of seeing a therapist to treat the underlying issue – the childhood abuse she suffered at the hands of an alcoholic father who was shot by her mother in self-defense when Theron was 15. For years she hid the facts and pretended her father had died in a car accident. She says it took time for her to hit rock bottom and admit that the abuse and trauma was continuing to impact her life. Still acting, Theron also launched an organization whose mission is to keep African youth safe from HIV/AIDs, was named a UN Messenger of Peace in 2008, and more recently adopted two children.

“I don’t think you can create anything interesting from a comfort zone. You have to work from a place of fear and failure.” – Charlize Theron

9.) Darrell Hammond – PTSD, Bipolar, Schizophrenia, Borderline Personality Disorder

Setting the record for longest consecutive tenure of any Saturday Night Live cast member in the show’s history, Hammond is best known for his celebrity impersonations on the show (107 of them so far!). When he retired at the end of the 34th season, he became the last SNL cast member from the 1990s to leave, but continues to hold the record for most shows, 280. In more recent years, the actor as spoken of his life-long struggle with mental illness – the multiple diagnoses, being in and out of treatment facilities since he was 19, drug and alcohol abuse, self-mutilation, and the systematic brutality he suffered as the victim of child abuse. The trauma resulted in flashbacks he experienced while filming SNL as well as routinely cutting himself backstage. He recalls that the week he did skits on the Gore debates he was taken away in a straitjacket afterwards. Hammond refuses to feel ashamed of falling down though; “The fact is, I kept trying to get back up, and then I did.”

“My brilliant psychiatrist Dr. K. had told me that the only way to move on from trauma is forgiveness, giving up the right to hit back harder than you were hit in the first place.” – Darrell Hammond

10.) Demi Lovato – Depression, Bipolar, Anorexia, Bulimia, Substance Abuse

The American singer, songwriter, and actress Demi Lovato made her debut as a child in Barney & Friends before rising to fame in the 2008 Disney Channel television film Camp Rock and releasing her debut single which peaked at number nine on the Billboard Hot 100. The success resulted in a recording contract and the album Don’t Forget, which debuted at number two on the U.S. charts. Citing a long history of depression, including suicidal thoughts since age seven, Lovato’s career was put on hold in 2010 so she could enter a treatment facility for her eating disorder, substance abuse, and self-harm. During treatment, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which she admits came as a relief – a way to make sense of the harmful ways she’d been coping. Lovato continues to make multi-platinum selling pop music, tours the world performing, and speaks out for social issues surrounding mental health, bullying, LGBTQ issues, and Latino voter rights.

“Never be ashamed of what you feel. You have the right to feel any emotion that you want, and to do what makes you happy. That’s my life motto.” – Demi Lovato

11.) DMX – Bipolar, Substance Abuse

Born Earl Simmons but known professionally as DMX, this American rapper, record producer, and actor entered a musical career in the early 90s. In 1999 he released his best-selling album …And Then There Was X, which included the hit single “Party Up.” DMX has sold over 30 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling hip-hop artists of all time. He’s also acted in several films including Romeo Must Die, Exit Wounds, and Last Hour. Growing up in Yonkers, New York, the musician suffered an abusive childhood with stays at group homes and frequent encounters with the law. DMX’s career has been peppered with legal issues, multiple arrests, prison time and drug addiction. In more recent interviews, the rapper spoke about being bipolar and the difficulties he faces in separating his life as DMX from his personal life as Earl Simmons.

“There’s a difference between doing wrong and being wrong.” – DMX

12.) Elyn Saks – Schizophrenia

An Associate Dean and Professor of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry at the University of Southern California, Elyn Saks has defied the odds for a woman diagnosed with schizophrenia. Saks is an expert in mental health law and in 2009 received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” which she used to establish the Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics. The Institute’s objective is to help people with mental illness lead fulfilling, productive lives, a mission reflected in Saks’ own life and journey through the mental health system. Saks’ three lengthy stays in psychiatric hospitals as a young woman and a devastating prognosis of life in a care facility, helped to inspire her award-winning autobiography, The Center Cannot Hold, which she published in 2007. While she’s been free of hospitals for 30 years, Saks says the psychotic struggle is still there, but she leans heavily on the support of her workplace, her close community, and therapy to stay healthy.

“One of the reasons the doctors gave for hospitalizing me against my will was that I was ‘gravely disabled.’ To support this view, they wrote in my chart that I was unable to do my Yale Law School homework. I wondered what that meant about much of the rest of New Haven.” – Elyn Saks

13.) Herschel Walker – Dissociative Identity Disorder

The three time All-American honors athlete, Herschel Walker, is a former professional American football players, sprinter, mixed martial artist, and Olympic bobsledder. Now retired, the Heisman trophy winner was a NFL superstar in the 80s and 90s. He credits a childhood of severe bullying for his speech impediment and weight issues as the motivation to become fit and strong. Shedding the tormented child, Walker began an intense workout routine in high school where he played football, basketball and competed in track, eventually awarding him the 1979 national high school scholar-athlete of the year. He graduated from high school as valedictorian and started his athletic career as running back for the University of Georgia. However, Walker has also credited the childhood bullying as the origin of his mental illness called dissociative identity disorder, or DID. These personalities were created as a way to cope with the trauma he experienced as a child, but were carried into adulthood and went unnoticed until he retired from the NFL. When his behavior became erratic and dangerous, Walker sought treatment and he continues to use psychotherapy today to stay healthy and reconcile the different aspects of himself.

“My God given talent is my ability to stick with training longer than anybody else.” – Hershel Walker

14.) Jim Carrey – Depression

The Canadian-American actor, comedian, screenwriter, and producer is famous for his energetic impressions and slapstick performances. Jim Carrey began his career on the television series In Living Color and soon after landed leading roles in the movies Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb and Dumber, The Mask, and Liar Liar. At the end of the 90s he began to tackle darker, more serious roles in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon with both earning him a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor. As a child, Carrey’s family experienced extreme poverty at times, forcing him to drop out of high school at 15 to provide additional income. As an adult, Carrey has talked about his battle with depression, taking Prozac for a long time, and his eventual decision to avoid medications, drugs, alcohol and stimulants of any kind in an effort to stay mentally healthy.

“Your need for acceptance can make you invisible in this world. Don’t let anything stand in the way of the light that shines through this form. Risk being seen in all of your glory.” – Jim Carrey

15.) J.K. Rowling – Depression

Joanne Rowling is a British novelist, screenwriter, and film producer best known as the author of the famous Harry Potter series, which has sold more than 400 million copies worldwide and became the best-selling book series in history. Before her success as an author, Rowling was a single mom living in relative poverty on state benefits. During this time, she was diagnosed with clinical depression and contemplated suicide. With the help of a doctor, Rowling started cognitive behavioral therapy and used her writing as a cathartic healing process. The author’s vocalization about her own experience is an effort to fight the stigma associated with mental health challenges and show people there’s nothing to be ashamed of.

“Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.” – J.K. Rowling

16.) John Nash – Schizophrenia

The brilliant American mathematician, Dr. John Nash, has been regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. His theory of noncooperative games, published in 1950 and referred to as Nash equilibrium, allows for simple yet powerful analysis of competitive situations. He also made fundamental contributions to differential geometry, the study of partial differential equations, and his theories are widely used in economics. A large portion of his accomplishments were achieved before he turned 30. It was around that age Nash began showing clear signs of mental illness and was eventually hospitalized for treatment of paranoid schizophrenia. In the 1980s, when Nash was in his 50s, his condition began to improve. In 1994, he was well enough to travel to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on game theory. Nash’s descent into schizophrenia inspired the bestselling book, A Beautiful Mind, which was adapted for film and released in 2001.

“As you will find in multivariable calculus, there is often a number of solutions for any given problem.” – John Nash

17.) Kid Cudi (Scott Mescudi) – Depression

Scott Mescudi, better known by his stage name Kid Cudi, is an American musician and recording artist who gained recognition in 2008 with the release of his mixtape A Kid Named Cudi. Since his debut single “Day ‘n’ Nite,” which reached the top five on the Billboard charts, Mescudi has released six albums as a solo artist, formed a rock band known as WZRD, and made appearances in several feature films and television shows. Mescudi has been public about his past abuse of drugs and alcohol, an addiction to anti-depressant medication, and constant struggles with depression. In 2016, he publicly revealed his decision to check himself into rehabilitation for treatment of depression and suicidal thoughts. Despite the overwhelming stigma surrounding mental health issues in the rap/hip-hop community, Mescudi has been committed to helping depressed and suicidal youth through the power of music. His honesty has started a conversation about the shame black men, especially, face when confronting mental illness in our culture. His fans have shown overwhelming support in his decision to go public concerning his mental health and break barriers within the mainstream hip-hop industry.

“You sometimes think you want to disappear, but all you really want is to be found.” – Kid Cudi

18.) Kay Redfield Jamison – Bipolar

An American clinical psychologist, writer, and Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, Kay Redfield Jamison’s work has focused primarily on mood disorders, adding an insider perspective since Jamison herself is bipolar. The onset of her struggle with the disorder began late in adolescence, but went undiagnosed even during her study of psychology and personal interest in mood disorders. Three months into her first job as a Professor at UCLA’s Department of Psychology, Jamison was diagnosed and put on lithium to treat her moods, something she refused, at times, due to a substantial decrease in motor skills. Her experience as a bipolar medical professional from the inside out, her introduction to the disorder, her mania, her depressive episodes, and attempted suicide are chronicled in her memoir, An Unquiet Mind. Jamison’s book, Touched with Fire, explores the relationship between bipolar disorder and artistic or high-achieving individuals and families.  

“I decided early in graduate school that I needed to do something about my moods. It quickly came down to a choice between seeing a psychiatrist or buying a horse. Since almost everyone I knew was seeing a psychiatrist, and since I had an absolute belief that I should be able to handle my own problems, I naturally bought a horse.” – Kay Redfield Jamison

19.) Lena Dunham – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Anxiety, Depression

Lena Dunham is an American actress, writer, producer and director best known for her creation of the HBO series Girls. For her work on the show, Dunham has received two Golden Globe awards and in 2013 became the first woman to win the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing of a Comedy Series. Dunham’s career breakthrough came with her semi autobiographical feature film Tiny Furniture in 2010, winning her several awards including Best First Screenplay from the Independent Spirit Awards. Much of her work chronicles the mental health struggles she’s faced since a young age; “I don’t remember a time not being anxious.” Dunham has been a proponent of mental health awareness for a long time, documenting her personal experiences through her artistic mediums, but also speaking out directly to the impacts of her anxiety, OCD, and the benefits of taking anti-depressants.

“There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman.” – Lena Dunham

20.) Mike Wallace – Depression

The American journalist, actor, and media personality, Mike Wallace, is best known as one of the original reporters for CBS’ news television program 60 Minutes where he interviewed countless politicians, celebrities, and academics. After 37 years with the program, he retired but continued to work for CBS News as an occasional correspondent. His work as a reporter earned him 21 Emmy Awards, a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, three George Foster Peabody Awards, and a Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 2003. Wallace made some of the world’s most powerful leaders squirm in the interview seat, but he is also known for his strength and courage in shedding light on the silent suffering of people with depression and other types of mental health challenges. The stigma around depression left him undiagnosed and untreated for many years, leading to a suicide attempt and finally therapy and medication which pulled him through a severe depression in the mid-1980s. While he experienced additional episodes in his life, he commented on how the experiences had changed him; “I’m more compassionate, I’m more understanding, and ultimately, my life has been a lot fuller because I experienced this.”

“All I’m armed with is research.” – Mike Wallace

21.) Oprah Winfrey – PTSD, Anxiety

Media icon, television personality, actress, producer and philanthropist, Oprah Winfrey, is best known for her talk show The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was the highest-rated program of it’s kind in history. She is North America’s first and only multi-billionaire person of African-American descent and has been ranked the greatest black philanthropist in American history. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Oprah with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Long before the success, however, Oprah experienced unbelievable trauma and grief. She was born into poverty in rural Mississippi to a teenage single mother, physically abused by her grandmother, first sexually abused at age nine by a cousin, and raped on multiple occasions resulting in a pregnancy at age 14, the baby dying in infancy. Oprah’s decision to share her experiences publicly, and explore the prevalence of abuse in our culture, has brought focus and understanding to the stories of countless victims.

“I will tell you that there have been no failures in my life. I don’t want to sound like some metaphysical queen, but there have been no failures. There have been some tremendous lessons.” – Oprah Winfrey

Note: this was a collaborative piece produced by HealthyPsych, with research, writing and editorial assistance from Elana Baumann-Carbrey and Kim Pratt, LCSW.

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