In an intimate interview with Nylon for their August 2019 cover, actor Madelaine Petsch shared her experiences with panic attacks, social anxiety, and overcoming the stigma of discussing these struggles, especially when you’re a private person. The Riverdale star explained that her anxieties didn’t manifest in a clean, linear way, and the form her anxiety takes has not always been consistent or the same. Something that developed over time and without necessarily identifiable causes, Petsch described working to unlearn stigma about anxiety in a stigmatizing world.
“I didn't even know what it was, but I used to get really bad panic attacks right before I booked Riverdale,” Petsch told Nylon. “Then, I started getting really bad social anxiety, and I only was able to home in on what those things are and work through them [with therapy].” She revealed that she talked about these things against her more immediate instincts to remain private. Many parts of her interview were accompanied by Petsch’s explicit statements of what she won’t talk about (e.g., her family and romantic relationship) because she’s such a private person.
So why speak up about her anxiety when she places such a premium on privacy regarding the most intimate parts of her life? Because, she said, the social stigma around mental health needs to be dismantled. And that can only happen if people talk about it and put their experiences into words.
Petsch related the kinds of community created by talking about anxiety and therapy to the kinds of community created through the #MeToo movement. Petsch’s simple, concise tweet joining the #MeToo movement — “I’m a little late on this… #MeToo,” she wrote — reflects her distinction between maintaining privacy and staying silent about stigmatized experiences. “The #MeToo movement was huge and incredibly empowering for women to be able to stand up and be like, 'That happened to me, as well,'” she told Nylon, and “the fact that we can own that is huge.” Petsch here chose to strike a balance here between privacy and combating stigma: #MeToo, she said, without the need to add more intimate details.
Petsch she spoke out about her anxiety in a similar way, to promote the same sense of community and empowerment that the #MeToo movement has created. She said she was speaking out about having panic attacks and social anxiety because “Mental health is incredibly important to me, and I'm so happy that I'm part of a group of women with the [Riverdale] cast that all speak so vocally about it.” And of the stigma that still exists about going to therapy, Petsch offered an important viewpoint: “But, like, you talk to your mom, you talk to your friends,” she said. And therapy is “the same thing.”
Yet you can’t get treatment for and build community around something you can’t speak about. In this way, the need to put the realities of anxiety and therapy into words continues to clash with people’s desires for privacy and boundaries. According to a 2016 study published in the journal Families, Systems, and Health, even mental health professionals are actively grappling with the delicate balance between the need for privacy versus the need to combat stigma. You need to be open about your experiences in order to receive care, but the study acknowledged that this emotional honesty opens the door for privacy violations (both interpersonally and in the medical field and workplace).
So where does this tension between privacy, enforced silence, and combating stigma leave people who would like to both seek to dismantle stigma, form community, and maintain desired, healthy boundaries and privacy?
The kinds of communities that formed surrounding the #MeToo movement and increasingly open conversations about mental health and anxiety are largely virtual, living in online spaces. Technologies like social media give people the ability to maintain some semblance of privacy while also allowing for immense openness and community-formation. Indeed, in a 2018 study published in the journal AIDS and Behavior, evidence suggested that supportive virtual communities helped HIV-positive people to combat stigma while maintaining privacy.
You might choose to seek support and build community through talking to people (including therapists) IRL or online, or through reading articles in which people like Petsch share their experiences. But wherever you choose to create affirmative community, the central message is clear: you’re not alone, and you can be both private and open enough to get the help you deserve.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.