06/01/2015 07:00 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

Demi Lovato On Fighting Mental Illness Stigma And Finding Peace

Photo credit: Alexander Tamargo via Getty Images

If there's one thing singer-songwriter Demi Lovato knows how to do, it's express her emotions on stage, detailing her trials and triumphs with mental illness through her lyrics. But in her downtime, she's also a vocal advocate for mental health awareness and acceptance, speaking publicly about her experience with bipolar disorder and addiction.

"I want to use my voice in more ways than just singing."

Now, she's taking her advocacy one step further. The singer recently launched Be Vocal, a campaign to encourage individuals struggling with mental illness to talk about what they're going through. The project is a partnership with well-regarded mental health organizations like The Jed Foundation and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, who have long been involved in other anti-stigma initiatives.

The Huffington Post sat down with Lovato to talk about the new project and what she wants everyone to understand about mental health.

The Huffington Post: What originally drew you to the Be Vocal project?
Demi Lovato: I thought it was incredible that the top five mental health organizations have all come together to make this happen. What attracted me to this campaign was this was an opportunity that I could do a PSA. I could make sure [the message about mental health] gets out there. With the resources Be Vocal has, it's really going to make a difference.

Yeah, I feel like a lot of mental health isn't really discussed in the way that it should be.
It's not. But people want it; people crave it. People are wanting to talk about it and learn more about it because things are coming up in the news. What Be Vocal does is that it gives more to information to people. It's important that people are vocal about mental illness and that they speak up for their community as well as themselves.

Can you talk to me a little bit about your own journey with mental illness? Why did you decide to speak publicly about it?
Speaking out about my mental illness was really difficult in the beginning because I kind of didn't have a choice. Unfortunately, when you're in the public eye, everyone knows your secrets whether you like it or not. I had an opportunity where I could say, "Yes, I went to treatment but I'm not going to talk about it," but I felt like I could make a difference. I thought it was my responsibility and my purpose to speak about the things I believe in and what I was going through, because I want to use my voice in more ways than just singing.

What do you personally wish people understood more about mental health?
There are several things. With addiction, there are times that people think "Well why doesn't this person just stop drinking?" or "Why doesn't this person just eat something?" for people who have eating disorders. It's not that simple. If it were, so many people wouldn't be struggling with it. Lives wouldn't be lost. I wish that people could understand that the brain is the most important organ in your body. Just because you can't see it like you could see a broken bone doesn't mean it's not as detrimental and devastating to a family or an individual.

That's something a lot of people don't realize. We've actually talked a lot about what would happen if people started treating physical illness like mental illness.
You know, it's funny. I keep hearing the terms "mental illness" and "physical illness." But in reality, your brain is an organ. So it is actually a physical illness.

Let's talk a little about mental illness stigma. How can those experiencing mental health issues fight against those stereotypes?
It's so unfortunate. I think the more people vocalize what they're going through -- their experience or just simply educating themselves so that they can learn more about what they're talking about -- that's going to be the key to creating a conversation about mental illness and making it more understood. There's a lack of compassion for people who have mental illnesses and there's a lot of judgment. Once you make people realize that mental illness can happen to anybody -- and it's not anybody's fault -- then I think they'll become more understanding of what mental illness really is.

What advice do you have for teens or young adults who may be experiencing anxiety or any other mental health issue when they're in school?
I can't stress enough to vocalize your needs to a great support system -- whether it's your family or even an online community of people who are going through the same thing that you are. It's so important to vocalize what you're dealing with instead of internalizing it and letting it manifest into unhealthy behavior. That eventually leads to lifelong problems. That's the most important thing you can do.

Exercising is another way I deal with anxiety. Painting, and writing music and expressing myself through art are other ways that I can release emotions. Meditation is another one. Whatever it is, it's important to find what works for you.

Photo credit: Timothy Hiatt via Getty Images

We've done a lot of posts for Stronger Together [HuffPost's mental health initiative] on what these disorders actually feel like. For you, how would you describe how anxiety physically feels?
I've actually had anxiety to the point where I've felt drugged. I actually ended up having problems with my thyroid because I was so stressed out and so anxious at times in my life. I remember one time I actually went to the hospital because I physically felt like I had been drugged; I was having an anxiety attack.

On a day-to-day basis if I get anxiety, I just need to take a couple deep breaths because sometimes I feel like I can't catch my breath. Sometimes I'll get very shaky and very scattered. You know restless leg syndrome? It's like restless body syndrome.

That's so scary. When you're feeling that way, who is the first person you call when you need support?
The first call I make is my boyfriend [Wilmer Valderrama].

He calms you down?
Absolutely. He calms me down and makes me feel so much better. But having people who are professionals as well and not relying on just one person is another key to maintaining a healthy recovery. I talk to my therapist. I'm actually in AA, so I reach out to my sponsor. I talk to the people around me, like the people on my team. I vocalize a lot of what I need and they're very understanding. I'm very grateful for that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


  • Summer Weather
    Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is most commonly associated with winter blues, and it afflicts about 5 percent of Americans. But for less than 1 percent of those people, this form of depression strikes in the summer. Warm weather depression arises when the body experiences a "delay adjusting to new seasons," says Alfred Lewy, MD, professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University, in Portland. Instead of waking and enjoying dawn, the body has a hard time adjusting, he says, which could be due to imbalances in brain chemistry and the hormone melatonin. More from Tips for Dating With DepressionThe Most Depressing States in the U.S.Depressing Jobs: Career Fields With Hight Rates of Depression
  • Smoking
    Smoking has long been linked with depression, though it's a chicken-or-egg scenario: People who are depression-prone may be more likely to take up the habit. However, nicotine is known to affect neurotransmitter activity in the brain, resulting in higher levels of dopamine and serotonin (which is also the mechanism of action for antidepressant drugs). This may explain the addictive nature of the drug, and the mood swings that come with withdrawal, as well as why depression is associated with smoking cessation. Avoiding cigarettes -- and staying smoke free -- could help balance your brain chemicals.
  • Thyroid Disease
    When the thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck, doesn't produce enough thyroid hormone, it's known as hypothyroidism, and depression is one of its symptoms. This hormone is multifunctional, but one of its main tasks is to act as a neurotransmitter and regulate serotonin levels. If you experience new depression symptoms -- particularly along with cold sensitivity, constipation and fatigue -- a thyroid test couldn't hurt. Hypothyroidism is treatable with medication.
  • Poor Sleep Habits
    It's no surprise that sleep deprivation can lead to irritability, but it could also increase the risk of depression. A 2007 study found that when healthy participants were deprived of sleep, they had greater brain activity after viewing upsetting images than their well-rested counterparts, which is similar to the reaction that depressed patients have, noted one of the study authors. "If you don't sleep, you don't have time to replenish [brain cells], the brain stops functioning well, and one of the many factors that could lead to is depression," says Matthew Edlund, M.D., director of the Center for Circadian Medicine, in Sarasota, Fla., and author of "The Power of Rest."
  • Facebook Overload
    Spending too much time in chat rooms and on social-networking sites? A number of studies now suggest that this can be associated with depression, particularly in teens and preteens. Internet addicts may struggle with real-life human interaction and a lack of companionship, and they may have an unrealistic view of the world. Some experts even call it "Facebook depression." In a 2010 study, researchers found that about 1.2 percent of people ages 16 to 51 spent an inordinate amount of time online, and that they had a higher rate of moderate to severe depression. However, the researchers noted that it is not clear if Internet overuse leads to depression or if depressed people are more likely to use the Internet.
  • End Of A TV Show Or Movie
    When something important comes to an end, like a TV show, movie, or a big home renovation, it can trigger depression in some people. In 2009, some "Avatar" fans reported feeling depressed and even suicidal because the movie's fictional world wasn't real. There was a similar reaction to the final installments of the Harry Potter movies. "People experience distress when they're watching primarily for companionship," said Emily Moyer-Gusé, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, in Columbus. With "Avatar," Moyer-Gusé suspects people were "swept up in a narrative forgetting about real life and [their] own problems."
  • Where You Live
    You can endlessly debate whether city or country life is better. But research has found that people living in urban settings do have a 39 percent higher risk of mood disorders than those in rural regions. A 2011 study in the journal Nature offers an explanation for this trend: City dwellers have more activity in the part of the brain that regulates stress. And higher levels of stress could lead to psychotic disorders. Depression rates also vary by country and state. Some states have higher rates of depression and affluent nations having higher rates than low-income nations. Even altitude may play a role, with suicide risk going up with altitude.
  • Too Many Choices
    The sheer number of options available -- whether it's face cream, breakfast cereal or appliances -- can be overwhelming. That's not a problem for shoppers who pick the first thing that meets their needs, according to some psychologists. However, some people respond to choice overload by maximizing, or exhaustively reviewing their options in the search for the very best item. Research suggests that this coping style is linked to perfectionism and depression.
  • Lack Of Fish In The Diet
    Low intake of omega-3 fatty acids, found in salmon and vegetable oils, may be associated with a greater risk of depression. A 2004 Finnish study found an association between eating less fish and depression in women, but not in men. These fatty acids regulate neurotransmitters like serotonin, which could explain the link. Fish oil supplements may work too; at least one study found they helped depression in people with bipolar disorder.
  • Poor Sibling Relationships
    Although unhappy relationships with anyone can cause depression, a 2007 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that men who didn't get along with their siblings before age 20 were more likely to be depressed later in life than those who did. Although it's not clear what's so significant about sibling relationships (the same wasn't true for relationships with parents), researchers suggest that they could help children develop the ability to relate with peers and socialize. Regardless of the reason, too much squabbling is associated with a greater risk of developing depression before age 50.
  • Birth Control Pills
    Like any medication, the pill can have side effects. Oral contraceptives contain a synthetic version of progesterone, which studies suggest can lead to depression in some women. "The reason is still unknown," says Hilda Hutcherson, M.D., clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University, in New York. "It doesn't happen to everyone, but if women have a history of depression or are prone to depression, they have an increased chance of experiencing depression symptoms while taking birth control pills," Dr. Hutcherson says. "Some women just can't take the pill; that's when we start looking into alternative contraception, like a diaphragm, which doesn't contain hormones."
  • Rx Medications
    Depression is a side effect of many medications. For example, Accutane and its generic version (isotretinoin) are prescribed to clear up severe acne, but depression and suicidal thoughts are a potential risk for some people. Depression is a possible side effect for anxiety and insomnia drugs, including Valium and Xanax; Lopressor, prescribed to treat high blood pressure; cholesterol-lowering drugs including Lipitor; and Premarin for menopausal symptoms. Read the potential side effects when you take a new medication, and always check with your doctor to see if you might be at risk. More from Tips for Dating With DepressionThe Most Depressing States in the U.S.Depressing Jobs: Career Fields With Hight Rates of Depression