OS ANGELES (AFP) – Catherine Zeta-Jones’ admission that she has bipolar disorder has been welcomed by mental health groups as helping fight the stigma attached to the disease, which afflicts a number of celebrities.
Doctors also emphasize that the Welsh actress, treated following the stress of husband Michael Douglas’s recent throat cancer, will likely never be free of it but will learn to live her high-profile life with the illness.
“This is a family of illnesses that very high functioning and high performing people can and do have,” said Martin Evers, associate director of behavioral health at Northern Westchester Hospital in New York state.
“I think its good to combat the stigma, and specifically in the case of bipolar to really reinforce the point that you can live an extremely productive life with bipolar disorder,” he told AFP.
Zeta-Jones’ publicist said Wednesday that the actress had briefly checked into a mental health clinic to treat her bipolar II disorder, a less severe form of the disease also known as manic depression.
The 41-year-old, who stood by her husband’s side during his ultimately successful cancer battle, “is feeling great and looking forward to starting work this week on her two upcoming films,” said the spokeswoman.
The actress’s forthcoming films include Gabriele Muccino’s “Playing the Field” and “Lay the Favorite,” directed by fellow Briton Stephen Frears.
Zeta-Jones is a global star, who won a best supporting actress Oscar for her performance in “Chicago” (2002). Most of her career has been in Hollywood, with roles in films such as “Traffic,” “Ocean’s Twelve” and “The Mask of Zorro.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) said the openness of such a high-profile figure about her condition helped other sufferers. “It helps to normalize the condition,” said its communications director Katrina Gay.
“Mental illnesses are often illnesses that people aren’t comfortable talking (about) …and so they’re sort of shrouded in a lot of mystery and sometimes even shame and stigma,” she told AFP.
“So when people who are of high regard, including celebrities and other notables, can be very honest .. it certainly goes a long way to bringing some information and awareness for people.”
While anyone can suffer from it, bipolar disorder has afflicted a long line of celebrities and other creative types, as well as well-known historic figures such as Sir Winston Churchill.
Other stars linked with the disorder include Carrie Fisher, Ben Stiller, Russell Brand, Mel Gibson, Britney Spears, Brian Wilson and Pete Wentz, according to the Hollywood Reporter industry daily.
In Zeta-Jones’ homeland, sufferers including broadcaster and writer Stephen Fry, while veteran comic Spike Milligan was a famous manic depressive.
British mental health charities Mind and Rethink also welcomed Zeta-Jones’ admission.
“By being so frank about her diagnosis … Catherine will have helped to lift some of the burden of stigma which causes so much damage to so many lives,” said Sue Baker, head of an anti-stigma campaign run by the charities.
Back in Hollywood, one PR expert said Zeta-Jones’ diagnosis should not harm her career provided it is managed well, and will doubtless draw people’s sympathy.
Her “decision to go public about suffering from bipolar disease makes her appear more human and allows other people who share the same disease to better connect with her,” said personal branding expert Dan Schawbel.
“When celebrities go public with their illnesses, people respect them more. It’s much better when a celebrity admits their disease because people will eventually find out about it anyways,” he told AFP.
From a medical point of view, bipolar 2 does not require as intensive, constant medication as the more severe version.
“Bipolar 1 absolutely requires mood stabilizers, lifelong treatment to prevent the onset of an episode,” said Evers.
“You do see more people with bipolar 2 who come in and out of treatment. But the depression tends to be a persistent lifelong occurrence,” he said, adding: “My expectation would be that there would be some form of long-term treatment.”