The Weekly Dose: How celebrity illness impacts public health
What distinguishes the recent social media updates/interviews by celebrities about their health conditions from those in the past is their forthrightness, and rawness. Regardless of how they acted on screen, for once, they are believable.
Another week goes by, and yet another celebrity comes out with the sob story of how he or she suffered from a debilitating or life-threatening illness. Tears, gasps, sympathetic murmurs…and we move on. Every day, we are deluged by entertainment-related ‘news’; these celeb health stories are just PR stunts, which have no impact other than bringing someone back into the public eye, right?
Let me tell you a story.
In the early 90s, when much of the world was still in denial about HIV-AIDS, American basketball superstar Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive. He was at the top of his game, married, and his wife was pregnant. In the following weeks – without any compulsion – he used every opportunity to talk about his diagnosis, how the infection is transmitted, and how it can be prevented. He became – in his own words – ‘a spokesman for the HIV virus’.
Scientists who had been studying public attitudes towards HIV before his announcement, conducted follow-up surveys to determine the effect of Johnson’s press conference on America. The results were unequivocal. More people were interested in learning about HIV and discussing it with their friends, than ever before. A heterosexual ‘macho’ man’s decision to talk about HIV had had the overnight effect of getting people to stop thinking of it as a ‘gay’ disease. Most respondents decided to reduce high-risk behaviour (such as unprotected sex, intravenous drug use), and many expressed their intentions to get tested for HIV.
Twenty-four years later, the actor Charlie Sheen revealed he is HIV-positive. That day, Google recorded the highest number of HIV-related searches in history. 2.75 million searches included the term ‘HIV’; 1.25 million of them were about condoms, symptoms, and testing. News coverage about HIV had been steadily declining for a decade; his disclosure caused an almost 300% increase in reporting about HIV and featured in the top 1% of HIV-related media days in the past seven years. In the week of Sheen’s announcement, 8,000 more at-home HIV oral tests were sold than expected. Sales stayed elevated for weeks.
In two years, India is expected to have 829 million smartphone users, by which time 90% of all Indians will have a 4G connection. 68% of Indians already consume news on their smartphones; 4 out of 5 rely on social media for updates. Now, in a nation obsessed with cinema and cricket, can you imagine the reach and impact of a celebrity’s medical testimony on the Indian public?
Until two years ago, most Indians had never heard of trigeminal neuralgia. But when Salman Khan spoke about how this made it difficult for him to even open his mouth, his legions of fans paid attention. The name of a disease that probably afflicted very few of them suddenly became known to a millions-strong Bhai-worshipping public. Actors can bewitch movie-goers, outside a theatre too.
What’s more, they can also captivate the media, which responds to each celebrity illness with articles about the disease, and listicles explaining its symptoms. These pieces bring unheard-of conditions into the public eye, and people at least begin to talk about them. I do not think Yuvraj Singh has been given enough credit for allowing his testicular cancer to be reported; here is an alpha-male cricketer, idolised by men and adored by women, admitting that cancer has infiltrated the one organ in his body responsible for all his manliness.
We believe bad things happen only to other people; celebrities are often viewed as another kind of ‘other people’, who lead charmed lives that are protected from hurt and sorrow. So when Krrish (Hrithik Roshan) undergoes surgery for a blood clot caused by a fall during filming, his fans sit up and take notice. If it can happen to him, it can happen to anyone.
When a familiar, well-liked person you look up to, talks about the time she was down in the dumps, a load of stigma is lifted off depression. When Deepika Padukone appeared on prime-time to narrate her struggles with mental illness, she spoke without drama, peppered her conversation with relevant facts, and creditably, brought along her mother, her psychiatrist and her counsellor to fill in the gaps. She went on to set up a foundation that supports people struggling with mental illness; its Dobaara Pooccho video, which urges people not to take their loved one’s apparent wellbeing at face value, is the most useful guide to mental illness I have ever seen.
What distinguishes the recent social media updates/interviews by celebrities about their health conditions from those in the past is their forthrightness and rawness. Regardless of how they acted on screen, for once, they are believable. Cancer survivor Sonali Bendre, who shared photos of her bald head, doesn’t urge patients to be positive all the time and admits she sought psychiatric help as well. Fellow cancer survivor Manisha Koirala goes beyond hair-loss to share that it wasn’t baldness that terrified her, but the prospect of chemotherapy-induced heart-valve damage and permanent hearing loss. In a recent interview, Sushmita Sen often looked straight into the camera when she described how the steroids she had to take made life in the public eye so much more difficult since they caused her face to swell up.
Celebrities often lead herd behaviour. Their actions and decisions are repeated and replicated by fans, which triggers a cascade of positive behaviour that strengthens as it grows. Their perceived success makes them more effective advocates for healthcare than far more qualified medical professionals; when your doctor tells you to cut down on sugar, you may ignore her advice, but when FSSAI commissions Rajkummar Rao to act in a public service ad in which he persuades you to use Aaj se thodakam sugar in your tea, we’re more likely to listen.
Actors’ vaulted status in society not only enables them to persuade us to buy things they endorse, but also change our health behaviour. When Akshay Kumar appears before each film to tell us that by quitting smoking and using the same money to buy sanitary pads for women, we can save two lives – he is endorsing public health.
These men and women had no reason to breach their own privacy to talk about what they did. But by doing so, each sent out an unspoken message: if I can overcome this disease, so can you. We owe them our thanks; these people in the spotlight who demanded the spotlight to shine a spotlight on something that affects us all.