GOING PUBLIC

Pete Davidson’s brave SNL skit shows mental illness and success aren’t mutually exclusive

Balancing mental illness with your career can be hard. Pete Davidson just made it a little easier.

The Saturday Night Live cast member dropped by Weekend Update on Saturday to discuss his recent diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. “As some of you may know, I was recently diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, a form of depression,” Davidson explains. “Depression affects more than 16 million people in this country, and there’s no cure per se, but for anyone dealing with it there are treatments that can help.”

(For what it’s worth, the National Institute of Mental Health classifies borderline personality disorder as a condition in its own right, characterized by difficulty regulating emotions and self-destructive behavior, while noting that people with borderline personality disorder also frequently have coexisting mood disorders, such as depression.)

Davidson goes on to dispense sage, common-sense advice for other people battling depression and mental illness: See a doctor, talk to them about medication, eat right and exercise, and perhaps, should you happen to be a member of a late night comedy show, plead with the powers that be to put more of your sketches on air.

It’s always useful when high-profile people use their platforms to talk openly about mental health problems, thereby working to counter the stigma associated with mental illness. But Davidson’s segment may be particularly helpful—and relatable—for anyone who’s ever worried about the effect that mental illness can have on their careers. “My sketches suck, because they’re all written by a depressed person,” he jokes. He also tosses off an aside about how mental illness can hobble productivity, explaining a (terrible) sketch idea before asking Weekend Update co-host Colin Jost to write it for him. “Wait, you haven’t even written it yet?” Jost asks. “No,” Davidson responds, “I’m like depressed.”

It’s a powerful thing to acknowledge the struggle of trying to keep up with career expectations while coping with a serious disease. (“This has been the worst year of my life, getting diagnosed with this and trying to figure out how to learn with this and live with this,” Davidson said while discussing his diagnosis on the WTF with Marc Maron podcast in late September.) And it’s even more powerful to see Davidson talking about the problem in his own place of work.

Despite the widespread prevalence of mental illness, many people keep quiet about their problems for fear of the professional repercussions. Unfortunately, the fear is valid, as research shows that employees who do disclose mental health problems often face bias and discrimination, as a 2016 article in the Washington Post explains. A 2013 study of 599 people with disabilities, in which roughly half had mental-health disabilities, found that among participants who chose to disclose their conditions to an employer, nearly 24% reported experiencing negative long-term consequences.

The risk may be particularly high with borderline personality disorder, which is among the most widely misunderstood and stigmatized mental health disorders, even among therapists. Marsha Linehan, a prominent therapist and researcher at the University of Washington, kept her own diagnosis with borderline personality disorder a secret for many years before going public in 2011. A New York Times profile aptly summarizes the stakes of Linehan’s admission: “No one knows how many people with severe mental illness live what appear to be normal, successful lives, because such people are not in the habit of announcing themselves. They are too busy juggling responsibilities, paying the bills, studying, raising families—all while weathering gusts of dark emotions or delusions that would quickly overwhelm almost anyone else.”

In order to battle the stigmatization against mental illness in general—and in the workplace in particular—it’s essential that successful people come forward to talk about their experiences. Davidson is struggling with mental health problems, and he’s also a comedy star on a legendary TV show. By talking publicly about both things, he may help push the working world toward the understanding that mental illness and success are not mutually exclusive.

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