When fame meets bravery: 4 Game of Thrones celebrities speak up about their mental health issues

Illustration: Tony H.

Update January 07th, 2020: Information about Same You, Emilia Clarke's charity, was added in the Going further section.

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Update May 31st, 2019: According to a representative, Kit Harington (Jon Snow) has willingly checked himself into a private wellness clinic in Connecticut, where he is working on his issues with stress, mental exhaustion and alcohol use. His wife and Game of Thrones co-star Rose Leslie (Ygritte) is as supportive of his decision as can be. Since Kit Harington has been at the facility for a month now, doing psychological coaching and cognitive behavioral therapy, and then been seen out and about shopping for fitness items and books, we can hopefully assume that he's gotten better already. Taking care of yourself often involves recognizing when you're not alright and you need external (professional or loved ones') help, which is admittedly not easy -- but it's definitely the quickest and safest way to getting better. We are with you, Kit.

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I don't watch Game of Thrones. There, it's out. The show is too hard on me psychologically, and my triggered PTSD keeps me from enjoying the brilliant political intricacies and amazing character buildings that I keep hearing about. Also, they killed a beautiful innocent werewolf, and for some reason to which a whole Reddit thread is dedicated, that was my limit (it's also why I immediately stopped watching House of Cards and don't regret it at all). But I know how popular the series is, and I know how strong the main female characters in particular are portrayed in it. All the more reason to admire the actresses (and Kit Harrington) who played them for eight seasons under an ever-increasing scrutiny, all while battling their own minds.

Yes, they are actresses and actors, and thereby used to spotlights and public appearances. Yes, they are beloved public figures and have starred in a world-wide phenomenon. Yes... but it can't have been easy to admit all of the dark thoughts that went through their minds, even as they were filming what might already be the peak of their careers.

 

Sophie Turner

Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark) openly talked about her long struggle with depression and other mental health issues, on a very well-known and very popular podcast called Phil in the blanks that you can watch right here. In a few words because spoiling is a crime of lèse-majesté, she was pretty amazing and straightforward about it.

 

What struck me as essential was her mention of a "really happy childhood": it's so important because people tend to associate mental health issues with trauma, a neglected or abusive childhood, unsupportive parents, etc. Basically what happens only to other people, what happens in the form of horror stories you can read in tabloids... but mental health issues, a common thing? Nah. People also tend to believe that everything's shiny in Hollywood/Beverly Hills/Buckingham Palace and once you make your way up there, basically the struggle is over -- you're famous, rich and can stop worrying about anything besides your next big success brought to you on a silver platter. Well, as Sophie Turner can attest, not really.

She had already tweeted about the issue of mental health being made fun of, but had not dwelled on her own struggles at the time. Coming back to speak specifically of her own experience on a widely-followed show is no small feat. She says that she "would cry over just getting changed" or "wouldn't want to see [her friends]". That's typically the kind of thing people with depression feel very shameful and guilty about, and I am using the word typically here because it is true of many human beings, including super famous and successful people.

I had a really happy childhood. [...] I really don't think I had any issues with [depression] up until I was 17. And then all of a sudden it just hit me.

Game of Thrones' actress Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark)

The (social) media scrutiny did not help, as she said herself, but it wasn't the main cause for her depression. I'm personally really happy about that, because having your work environment cause you such deep distress that it threatens your very ability to work, as well as your ability to function even in private settings, is a terrible thing... especially when your line of work intertwines with your passions (so you can't really escape in your hobby) and when it defines such a big and essential part of who you are.

Sophie Turner even acknowledged on the podcast, very candidly and very simply, that she had suicidal ideas not just one but many times. I can only say, girl, that's how it's done right. Of course we need to talk more about suicide, but there are many ways to do it wrong (and dwelling on the methods used by celebrities who died by their own hand is a major one). This kind of honest attitude towards experiencing suicidal ideation is particularly useful: believing that you're the only one carrying such unspeakable pain, that no one can understand you and that therefore you can never get better, as well as feeling incredibly guilty because "you have nothing to complain about" is a crucial part of suicidal ideas getting acted upon.

 

So Sansa Stark's doppelgänger will continue on her way as an actress, empowered by medication and therapy... and has just married her boyfriend Joe Jonas, with her co-star Maisie Williams as a bridesmaid. That's an example of happiness being in the cards when you get help -- things will actually get better, even when it really doesn't feel that way.

 

Maisie Williams

Which brings us to Maisie William's own mental health issues, that she opened up about on her own podcast moment: the on-screen sisters are decidedly equally brave and while it is not happy news that they both struggle(d) with their mental health, the fact that they both chose to make it publicly known is doubly great for mental health awareness.

 

The difference with her co-star Sophie Turner is that Maisie Williams is, of her own admission, still going through a very rough time. But the fact that she is able to pinpoint exactly what kind of dark thoughts she is having, that she's able to acknowledge that those thoughts exist at all, is great: it's the first step towards getting rid of them, because how can you fight back against an enemy if you haven't admitted there is one in the first place? Of course it's not as easy as Maisie Williams appears to be making it (though it probably took her a lot of time, too) but it is indeed possible.

The key take-away idea here is, she and every other celebrity out there talking about their mental health issues, are not able to get better because they are celebrities. They're getting better because it is possible, because they are human beings -- and guess what, so are you. Yes, celebrities might have greater access to professional help. Yes, famous people might get more support because their agents really need them to function. But your loved ones need you, too! Your friends and family want you to get better, not just because they need you to function, but because they care about you. And talking to them, letting them know that you're not okay, is going to have a much more positive outcome than you probably think.

Maisie Williams is no different than you. She's just as likely to experience self-hatred and to be distressed. It's okay. You're not abnormal, you're not a freak. And she's speaking up about it, so you can understand exactly that.

I still lie in bed at, like, 11 o’clock at night telling myself all the things I hate about myself.

Game of Thrones' actress Maisie Williams (Arya Stark)

What we tend to forget is what happens after you get better. Going through depression, or living with anxiety, is traumatic in itself. The anguish and the emotional pain that you experience, just like a physical injury, are duly noted by your brain so it can avoid those things happening again in the future. That's a totally normal process. And so a big part of recovery is actually that it's an experience you're likely to be terrified of going through again, as Maisie Williams explained.

I think there was a period of time where I was very sad, and then I came out of that, and now it’s just really terrifying that you’re ever going to slip back into it.

Game of Thrones' actress Maisie Williams (Arya Stark)

For her, the public gaze and the enormous amount of pressure from playing a main character in such a beloved series was too much. Not in the sense that she was convinced she was doing a bad job, but in that she felt she was losing herself in her character. Many actors and actresses have spoken about this before: the struggle to remember who you are and to interact with people as your true self, is often immense. It doesn't happen only to people whose job is to impersonate someone else, though -- it's also a key feature of a mental health issue like borderline personality disorder (BPD), which makes the actress' advice and experience all the more meaningful, and useful in a very practical way, for us regular folks.

There's a happy ending to Maisie Williams' mental health issues: she seems to have developed a philosophy that's working for her right now, even if it's just enough to get her to tomorrow. And I think that's some of the best advice you can get when struggling psychologically: baby steps, and one-by-one. Meaning it's all about surviving for one more day, one more hour, until you eventually get out of the woods. I promise you do. The actress has hinted that she's going to take a break from acting, in order to focus on getting better and rediscovering herself. And she hasn't lost any time, since the start-up app she launched last year has just topped 100,000 users and her own film-production company already has plans for its first project.

I think that’s definitely a first step: not trying to be who [people] want me to be right now in this moment...

Game of Thrones' actress Maisie Williams (Arya Stark)

Good job, girl. We're all cheering for you and thanking you for your honesty.

 

Emilia Clarke

One of the most well-known faces of the Game of Thrones cast, Emilia Clarke mentioned dealing with mental health issues while writing for the first time about surviving two almost-fatal aneurysms. In her case, it's the threat of dying, or the possiblity of losing essential things like speech ability and memory, that led her down a dark path of depression and anxiety.

It's actually pretty common for people with such life-threatening illnesses or chronic pathologies to find themselves in the grip of desperation and to subsequently lose the will to live. It makes me think of the opening lines of John Greene's book-then-movie best-seller The Fault in Our Stars: "Depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying". Not only are severely-ill people at risk for consequential mental health issues, but mental health issues themselves can have terrible effects on the body (and thereby the body's response to medication for purely physiological illnesses). The two are intricately interwoven, which can render the whole treatment plan pretty complicated.

Emilia Clarke admits very clearly to having had suicidal ideation, as a direct consequence of the pain caused by both her aneurysms and the surgeries to treat them.

In my worst moments, I wanted to pull the plug. I asked the medical staff to let me die.

Game of Thrones' actress Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen)

Anxiety apparently came later -- in her case too, it was mainly about fearing the return of these terrible threats to her life, the return of the unbearable pain, with the trauma of the whole experience clearly shadowing her every minute of the day.

It might seem easier to empathize with Emilia Clarke's panic attacks because they had a tangible origin. What's useful to remember if you haven't ever been stricken by a mental health issue yourself, is that anxiety is basically the person's body reacting to a perceived threat: it's that perception of threats that is malfunctioning in a person with an anxiety disorder. Meaning that they can't control it but it is definitely just as strong a bodily reaction when the threat is real and when the threat isn't.

For the Game of Thrones actress, the panic attacks and the constant anxiety are present because of a past (in this case physiological) trauma, which isn't automatically true of every person with an anxiety disorder. But the problem remains the same: the threat isn't real at the moment of the panic attack, it is only a perceived one at a moment when nothing in the (in this case Emilia Clarke's) body is actually changing or getting worse.

So the first thing I want to stress is that the origins of the anxiety disorder don't actually matter when assessing the seriousness of such a mental health issue: the person is suffering in the same way no matter what.

The second thing I want to point out is that we need to do a much better job of screening people with a physiological injury or chronic illness for mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. They're at risk for suicidal ideas when the illness or its treatment are painful and interfering heavily with their lives, and they're also at risk for depression stemming from survivor's guilt (a specific disorder listed under the broader Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder umbrella). My reading of Emilia Clarke's words is that she experienced both the former and the latter, though maybe not in equal parts.

At certain points, I lost all hope. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. There was terrible anxiety, panic attacks.

Game of Thrones' actress Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen)

Who hasn't ever been told, more or less in those very terms, that "there are people worse off than you"? If you haven't ever heard that phrase, well, the adults around you did a really good job and I am glad. Because that is one of the most unhelpful things to say to a person going through a rough patch, no matter the cause and especially when there isn't any easily identifiable cause. It doesn't lessen the pain nor the distress, but it sure does a great job of adding guilt and shame to the whole experience. And what do such feelings of guilt and shame lead to? You got it: not telling anyone that you're not okay, not seeking help of any kind, furthering the (self and public) stigma, using unhealthy coping methods, and letting rough patches turn into clinical disorders. Silence kills.

And while it's obviously important to learn to assign the right value of seriousness to every feeling or experience, so as to fight the brain's natural tendency to focus on the negative stuff, it's even more important to learn to accept all feelings as valid and without a judgment of value.

I was taught to remember that there is always someone who is worse off than you. But, going through this experience for the second time, all hope receded. I felt like a shell of myself.

Game of Thrones' actress Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen)

Feeling like a shadow of your former self is a big red flag indicating that something's not right and that feeling needs to be addressed properly. The good news is, even when you've been hitting rock bottom repeatedly, you can always make it back up the well.

First because the trauma, once addressed, won't always be so painful and vivid -- the mind has an incredible ability to "forget" distressing memories, though it might take a while. That's what Emilia Clarke experiences nowadays: "I now have a hard time remembering those dark days in much detail. My mind has blocked them out."

Second, because -- I repeat -- it can get better. You can get better. It might seem like the end of you, but it isn't if you choose to stay alive. The illness, particularly depression, makes you believe that you are now seeing things clearly, without those pink-colored glasses everybody else and your former self seem to be looking through. It tells you that the future isn't any brighter than the present, that it will only get darker. But that's a lie. You cannot know the future, you cannot know what amazing things will happen to you, because you are not yet living them. You can recover completely, just like Emilia Clarke did. And talking about your emotional pain is the first step towards that recovery.

But I survived. [...] I have healed beyond my most unreasonable hopes. I am now at a hundred per cent.

Game of Thrones' actress Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen)

Kit Harington

In an interview, the famous curly-haired actor opened up about how playing his character Jon Snow made him feel like he was losing himself, and how the public reaction to his on-screen alter-ego made him feel depressed. In an era where toxic masculinity is still in full bloom, throughout the interview Kit Harington fearlessly exposes his feelings and admits to vulnerability in countless ways. That's what I call bravery, and also what should be completely ordinary (but it's not, hence the bravery thing, hence the conclusion that Jon Snow is a hero played by a real-life one).

He explains that "my memory is always ‘the boring Jon Snow.’ And that got to me after a while, because I was like, ‘I love him. He’s mine and I love playing him.’" This is just one example of how actors might involuntarily become so fused with their characters (and we definitely love them for that, might I add) that they start taking the criticizing for themselves. The fact that Kit Harington, for the better part of the series, plays a soft-hearted fighter next to a number of very strong female leads clearly didn't help.

It took me a long time to not think, I’m the worst thing in this.

Game of Thrones' actor Kit Harington (Jon Snow)

But even a person with zero mental health issues and great self-confidence (not to be confused with arrogance) can find themselves under too much pressure to live up serenely to the public's expectations. And on a show like Game of Thrones, that pressure must definitely have been the soul-crushing kind. We tend to forget that behind the characters, the incredible costumes, and the great scenario, there is very hard work done by individuals who give it their all.

Which should inspire every one of us to ease up on the petty criticizing and the quick judgments, because this is not a case where the person receives one bad review during a face-to-face interview and can answer almost immediately. It's a case where the person receives backlash and hurtful comments from millions of viewers at the same time, without the ability to answer each and every one of them in an argumented manner. Of course it's terrifying to know that six-zero-numbers of people are counting on you to perform flawlessly on a story that has had them captivated for years. But it sure would be a little easier to breathe if everyone could be respectful in their assessment of the quality of the show. Which isn't that much to ask, really.

Online bullying is a real phenomenon, and while it doesn't happen solely to celebrities (far from it), it's still painful for the targeted person, who to protect their mental health will most probably close themselves off at some point. And that's not good for anyone, because (if you really need the rational argument) society is then bound to lose insightful ideas repressed and might have to pay for the (high) costs of mental ill-health.

When you become the cliffhanger of a TV show, and a TV show probably at the height of its power, the focus on you is f—ing terrifying.

Game of Thrones' actor Kit Harington (Jon Snow)

I guess Kit Harington is on team guilt, too: he admits, very clearly, to having felt like he had everything he could wish for... and yet feeling deeply undeserving and unhappy. Guys, Jon Snow went to therapy: I think it's a hint we should all take. You don't need to have a plain-sight mental health disorder, or to wait until you're at your lowest, to seek professional assistance. In all seriousness, why would you?

I'm not saying it's impossible to solve any mental health problem on your own, and I'm not saying therapy is for everyone (though there are countless different kinds of therapy so it's hard to believe there really wouldn't be any working for you) -- but I'm definitely saying that you'll save a lot of time and efforts by going directly to someone who knows how to help people so well it's their job. Just think of all the work that you won't be able to do well while you're burnt out, of all the parties and family moments you won't enjoy because you're feeling down and numb, of all the stupid arguments you'll go through with your loved ones because you're harboring resentment against the world. People (both professionals and loved ones) are there to help, they care about you and they're probably actually looking for ways to support you -- it only makes sense to ask them for that help.

Also, think long and hard about this: you won't always manage it all by yourself (and that's okay. You're a human being, remember?). So let me suggest you put aside those false ideas about your ego getting bruised by seeking assistance, and you get to work because yes -- therapy is work. The only difference when you're working with a therapist or a loved one, is that it's much more likely to have the intended effect of feeling better.

I felt I had to feel that I was the most fortunate person in the world, when actually, I felt very vulnerable. [...] That was a time when I started therapy.

Game of Thrones' actor Kit Harington (Jon Snow)

Kit Harington's character was very much laughed at in the first seasons and the actor is clearly a sentimental man. Which leads to only one conclusion: if Jon Snow's real-life version can muster the courage to go to therapy when he's not okay, so can you.

 

Going further

  • Discover Same You, Emilia Clarke's charity, which she founded to help people who have experienced TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury)

 

  • Not okay and living in the United Kingdom? Text SHOUT, the mental health crisis text line: it's anonymous, free of charge and meant for anybody having a rough time

 

  • Not okay and living in the United States? Reach out to the Crisis Text Line (SHOUT's parent organization): it's also anonymous, free of charge and meant for anybody having a rough time

 

  • Not okay and living in France? Reach out to SOS Suicide Phenix (French-speaking only): anonymous, same cost as a local call but also reachable by email, meant for anybody having a rough time
SHOUT, the royal quatuor's latest mental health initiative
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