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Living in the Shadows of Mental Illness: The Lele Pons Story

According to a 2015 study, approximately 8 million (3%) Americans struggle with emotional or psychological distress. And, now with COVID-19, individuals have become even more overwhelmed, anxious, stressed, and depressed. But, because COVID-19 has caused, at most, industries to come to a grinding halt, many of the people, who desperately need professional help, are unable to receive it, primarily because they don’t have the funds to pay for it.

What does all of this mean? It means that mental illness is escalating. Suicides are also increasing – primarily due to COVID-19-related loneliness, anxiety, depression, and isolation. But, although mental illness is becoming more noticeable, access to mental health care is becoming scarcer. People cannot afford care if they don’t have jobs. And, guess what? This doesn’t just apply to the average “Joe Shmoe,” it also applies to celebrities.

But, they have money and access, right? Yes, however, the social stigma associated with mental illness prevents them from seeking help, so ultimately they end up just as lonely, anxious, depressed, and isolated as you and me. Some may argue it may even be worse for celebrities because they are constantly in the public eye – at least we don’t have to deal with that added stress. Still, grappling with any mental health condition is challenging – with or without wealth and celebrity.

In fact, researchers found that between 2006 and 2014, access to mental health services severely declined for people struggling with severe emotional or psychological distress. Researchers also found that in 2014, approximately one-in-ten “troubled” or worried Americans did not have the health insurance they needed to grant them access to a mental health professional – this not only involved the average person, but also celebrities, who did not feel the need to purchase it.

The truth is COVID-19 has prevented people from “all walks of life” from earning a sustainable living. The current worldwide emergency health crisis has not only led to massive unemployment, but also to the deterioration of one’s role as the “family provider.”

Mental illness has also ramped up due to the explosion of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, coupled with a “raucous” US political election. All the factors play a role, as to whether or not a person, celebrity or not, can or will seek help for their mental health concerns. Constant noise from the Web can lead to anxiety and depression, regardless of your social or financial status.

And, although, in the past, a person could meet up with friends for a night of drinking, socializing, and “venting” about their stress, due to the current pandemic that is no longer a viable option. Before COVID-19, it was completely logical to work out one’s stress and find solutions to problems simply by communing with others.

At the end of the “vent session,” you could go home feeling, at least, a little better about the situation. But, now, because there is no outlet, the anxiety, depression, and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness keep mounting and persisting. So, even though it may feel like the pandemic is only hitting people in your income bracket hard, that is simply not true. It’s hitting everyone hard – in some way or another.

You can’t go to work because the restaurant you work for has shut down, while a singer can’t perform at a concert because large venues have been shut down, as well. Neither of you is making any money. And, both of you are feeling anxious, depressed, worried, nervous, and very, very isolated. But, with a celebrity, all of his or her angst is displayed in the media, on the Internet, or in magazines and/or in newspapers. It’s everywhere and you have no place to hide.

What does that mean for them? It means they, just like us, are at-risk for anxiety disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is an uncontrollable and relentless anxiety disorder. It invades your thoughts and alters your perception, so you feel “forced” to perform certain rituals and routines (compulsions) to receive relief.

It is impossible to stop performing the actions without proper care; so many people suffer from it in silence for years, decades, and in some cases, forever. You can’t just turn-off the thoughts and images that run through your mind, regardless of how much you want to.

Thus, it is a lonely condition that often resides in the dark – regardless of who you are and how much money you have amassed. The stress and anxiety is often compounded, if you already have one or more mental health conditions.

So, ultimately, celebrities are just like you and me – just with a bigger stage.


Why Do Celebrities Hide Mental Health Conditions?

Celebrities often hide mental health conditions for a variety of reasons, but the main reason is fear. They are afraid of how other people will view them if they share their mental health statuses with the world. The truth is celebrities with anxiety disorders like OCD are terrified of being shunned by others. Why? Because they make a living off entertaining people. They depend on their audiences to keep them afloat – financially, socially, spiritually, and psychologically.

Entertaining is their livelihood and without it, they feel lost or even worse – invisible. Many feel that if they are unable to do what fulfills them, they have no value. These negative feelings, in turn, fuel their anxiety, possibly leading to OCD, anxiety, depression, or even suicide in severe cases. Celebrities also hide mental health conditions because they see how the media and society treats those, who have shared their diagnoses – people like Kanye West and Britney Spears. Sadly, these celebrities are often the butt of jokes. This causes people in the public eye to pretend that everything is fine when it is obviously not.

These celebrities may even forgo care because they are deathly afraid the media will “out” them, revealing what they are desperately trying to forget. As a result, they continue to spiral until they hit rock bottom and have to be hospitalized.

Then, the gig is up.

So, celebrities hide their mental health conditions because of four main reasons: (1) they are afraid of what you will think of them once you find out, (2) they feel insecure about having a mental health condition, (3) their egos will not let them admit they have a mental health condition and need help, or (4) they honestly don’t know they have a mental illness.

The problem is when a mental health condition like OCD is left untreated, the problem only worsens. These individuals tell themselves they can control their thoughts, urges, images, and behaviors, but they can’t. The only thing that will remedy the situation is professional care, but they are entertainers, who have based their careers and even existence on presenting a specific image.

Because many have perfected this fantasy-like existence, it is easier to play the role of an eccentric or creative artist than to admit that they are struggling with mental health issues. So, what do they do? They suffer in silence. In other words, they hide their mental health concerns from me, you, their publicists, the media, and even their friends and family.

The stigma of being “mentally ill” is greater than seeking help to manage the problem. So, they struggle until the bottom falls out and they are shunned or ignored for the odd behavior, mocked, or hospitalized. Or, they turn to self-harm or suicide to ease the stress and relieve the emotional pain of grappling with a mental illness alone.

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What Does It Feel Like to Struggle with OCD & ADHD?

About 4 years ago, Jessica, a 20-year-old up-and-coming prima ballerina, became obsessed with making sure her home was clean and tidy. She couldn’t shake the feeling that her apartment was a filthy, disgusting pigsty, so every evening when she returned home from work, she’d clean her apartment for hours.

She’d clean each section until her hands were dry, red, raw, and cracked from the cleaning supplies, and her knees ached from scrubbing the already clean floor. She hated cleaning like she did every night, but she couldn’t help it. If she didn’t clean she’d never be able to sleep. But, still, deep down she wished she could be like other 20-year-olds, who simply enjoyed life and didn’t worry about every speck of dirt, dust, or grime in their homes.

Cleaning prevented Jessica from networking and mingling with other ballerinas and industry bigwigs. It also prevented her from celebrating being cast in the upcoming national Nutcracker production. But, even if she had done those things, she would have had a lousy time because all she would have thought about was the “nastiness” collecting in her home, while she was away. That feeling wouldn’t go away until she got home and cleaned. That was the only time she received relief from the never-ending images invading her mind.

Still, she wished she could invite people over to her apartment, but she was too afraid that they would laugh at her or make fun of her because of her nasty home. She feared they wouldn’t want to be her friend if they knew she was dirty. She was even more afraid of what people – other ballerinas, art directors, industry professionals, and friends and loved ones would think if they knew she had OCD – a mental illness. She had been diagnosed with OCD two years ago, but she didn’t tell anyone. She also refused to go to counseling for the condition.

Jessica chose to pretend it didn’t exist, but it did and she knew it. But, she honestly believed that she would be blacklisted from opportunities and shunned by others in the field if they knew the truth. She’d lose everything, so she hid it and pretended that everything was fine. It was not. In fact, each year it got worse and worse until others started to notice that something was “off” with Jessica.

She was missing practices and she looked terrible – as if she hadn’t slept or ate in weeks. She also began to pace and walk in circles. She couldn’t sit down or sit still and she definitely couldn’t sleep. She felt like she needed to move.

Jessica was also having trouble concentrating. She was snappy, which made others stay away from her – the very thing she had been afraid of. She began having problems remembering her moves during practice, which caused her counterparts to become frustrated with her. After cleaning until midnight, Jessica decided she needed to “relax” so she began partying until 4am because her home was now clean. She also began sleeping around with random men from the clubs she frequently visited.

Then, one day it happened. She hit rock bottom. She collapsed during production and had to be rushed to the hospital. It was then that the truth emerged. She had been hiding her OCD diagnosis for the past 2 years and it was killing her. She was lonely, depressed, and anxious and OCD was ruining her life.

Jessica told the doctors, friends, and family everything and was able to get the help she needed. Two years later, Jessica was doing much better. She was managing her condition and was on her way to becoming the famous ballerina she had always dreamed of.

Ultimately, Jessica was not only diagnosed with OCD, but also with ADHD. She had both.

So, what is it like to live with ADHD and OCD?

When you have both ADHD and OCD, you struggle with being focused. In other words, your mind tends to be scattered and/or disorganized. You may feel out-of-control or lost. You may also have an urge to double-check things to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything. Because your mind is always racing, you may feel an urge or need to constantly move.

For instance, you may feel a need to continuously shift in your seat because that is the only way to stop the urge to change positions. You become obsessed with not sitting still and can only stop these thoughts by moving. You truly believe that if you do not move, something terrible will happen, so you repeatedly shift positions until it is time for you to get up for good. Another often overlooked symptom of both ADHD and OCD is the need to hoard things.

When you have both mental health conditions, you may become obsessed with holding on to things, so much so that you are constantly collecting things – and then forgetting where you put them. This causes you to collect more things to ease the feeling that you need to collect things to feel safe or to stop the dread and fear that a tragedy will occur if you don’t hoard. When collecting things it makes you feel better so you continue to do it at a feverish pace.

Hoarding consumes your mind and forces you to act. You are constantly moving – and forgetting but this moving eases your stress and calms you so you can function. Because you have ADHD and OCD you are perfectionistic and obsessive. Another example of ADHD and OCD is playing with your hair. When you have both of these conditions, you may twiddle, play, or even pull at your hair continuously for hours without fully realizing what you are doing.

You do it because it eases your stress and anxiety when you’re bored, anxious, tired, depressed, lonely, sick, or stressed. You can’t stop moving your hands and playing with your hair. It is the only thing that makes you feel better or at ease. This is a sign of ADHD (hyperactivity) and OCD (obsessions and compulsions). You can’t control this behavior, but on some level, you don’t want to because it eases your stress. However, it can also damage your hair and scalp.

It is important to understand that OCD and ADHD affect the part of the brain that controls executive functions. In other words, this part of the brain helps us organize and analyze information so that our bodies can act upon that information. Ironically, however, this part of the brain tends to over-perform in people with OCD and under-perform in people with ADHD. So, in a sense having both OCD and ADHD is a walking contradiction.

But, it’s still possible to have both conditions. How does that look in regards to brain function? Well, at times, your brain may under-perform (ADHD) and at other times, over-perform (OCD). Brain function can fluctuate when you have ADHD and OCD. For instance, if your brain is under-performing in the sense of ADHD, you may take a long time to complete a task, like finishing a test, not necessarily because of an obsession or compulsion, but because you are easily distracted.

While if your brain is over-performing in the sense of OCD, it may take you a long time to complete a test because you have become obsessed with not failing the test because of wrong answers so you repeatedly go over each answer until you run out of time and fail the test.

Who is Lele Pons?

Who is Lele Pons? And, what does she have to do with mental illness?

Lele Pons is a 23-year-old Venezuelan star, who has more than 40-million Instagram followers. She is a celebrity, a world-famous “Influencer” and a Latin singer, who struggles with both OCD and ADHD. She has also been diagnosed with Tourette syndrome.

Recently, Lele shared this struggle, a lifelong battle with mental illness, with her fans and the world abroad, in her new YouTube five-part docuseries, “The Secret Life of Lele Pons.” In this docuseries, Lele talks about her personal mental health struggles, such as being diagnosed with various conditions at the young age of 11.

Lele recently experienced an emergency mental health crisis after becoming “stuck in her car.” It was at this time, she began intensive therapy to teach her how to manage these conditions in a healthy way. It was then that her psychologist, Dr. Katia Mortiz, learned that Lele had become “fixated” on or obsessed with turning on and off faucets.

Lele’s urges propelled her to perform these actions to receive relief – to make the “bad thoughts” go away. That was the only way she could ease her stress. But, that relief was only temporary. It only lasted until the next trigger popped up. Lele was having an extremely hard time functioning. She was suffering academically and skipping school. She was also not sleeping, focusing, eating, or performing basic functions. She was floundering.

Lele is recovering now, but every day is a struggle. She remembers when she would plead with Dr. Mortiz to let her perform a specific action one more time to receive relief. But, one time would often turn into two, three, five, or twenty times. It was never-ending. The thing is mental health conditions like OCD and/or ADHD, have a way of controlling you. You don’t want to have those thoughts, images, and/or urges and you definitely don’t want to perform the rituals and routines, but you can’t help it.

For Lele, the thing that keeps her moving forward is the fear of going back to the time when OCD, ADHD, and even Tourette syndrome controlled her life. At that time, she really believed that something terrible would happen to her family, if she didn’t touch, check, or repeat everything several times. It was hyperactivity and obsessions and compulsions mixed together. It got really bad for her and she never wants to return to that state of being again, so she works on managing her symptoms every day.

The best thing about the ″Secret Life of Lele Pons″ is it shows the unfiltered, hidden side of being a celebrity with a mental illness. She decided to share her journey with others because she grew tired of pretending that everything was fine when it really wasn’t. She was tired of being ashamed and embarrassed by her mental health conditions. She credits her father, who is gay, for inspiring her to be true to herself. He wasn’t afraid to be honest about who he is, and that gave her the courage to be honest about who she is.

Lele wants people to understand that mental illness, especially OCD, is a serious mental health condition. It is not something to be stigmatized or mocked. She wants the public to know it’s not something to joke about or use as a verb. It’s a disorder. But, even though it is a mental illness, Lele wants people with OCD, ADHD, and/or Tourette syndrome to feel empowered.

Lele wants you to believe that you can live a happy and productive life, even if you have been diagnosed with one or more mental health conditions. The story isn’t over for you – it’s just beginning. You can do whatever you want to do. You can be successful. With the proper treatment and support, you can be what you’ve always wanted to be. You can have the life you’ve always dreamed of. Sharing her journey with mental illness makes Lele feel strong and resilient.

She is glad that she can use her platform to help others with mental health conditions like OCD feel loved and supported. Surprisingly, the response has been positive. She was happy to learn that more people than she originally thought are supportive of people with mental illness. It is this support that has helped aid Lele’s recovery. Every day is a struggle, but she is winning this battle – and so can you.

In Summary

It is possible to have more than one mental health condition. But, what is even more positive is that you can successfully manage most mental illnesses. Lele Pons is a living testament of what you can achieve, even if you struggle with a mental illness like OCD. Mental illness doesn’t have to rule or ruin your life if you are a celebrity, a corporate executive, or the stay-at-home mom down the street.

The truth is no one is immune from mental illness – not the wealthy and not the poor. The good news is there is help available, so you don’t have to battle these conditions on your own. You are a lot stronger than you think. But, first, you must reach out to someone you trust and share your journey with him or her. Once, you receive the proper treatment, you will feel like a new person – a new person, who can conquer anything.


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DR. R. Y. Langham

Dr. R. Y. Langham has a B.A. in English, an M.M.F.T in Marriage and Family Therapy (Psychology), and a Ph.D. in Family Psychology. She is currently a medical, health & wellness contributor, copywriter, and psychological consultant

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