There’s a moment in Selena Gomez: My Mind and Me in which it feels like the star’s world has been ripped wide open, inviting brave viewers to witness what comes next.
Both things are somewhat true for the Apple TV+ documentary made over a six-year period in Gomez’s life. But the one and a half hour film does something curious in 20 minutes, when the singer-actress performs a… bipolar disorder diagnosis in 2019after hospitalization for a psychotic fracture.
Gomez, now 30, tells viewers that when she was first released, she wasn’t sure how she would cope with the diagnosis.
“I had to keep learning about it,” she says. “I had to look at it day by day.”
Then she tenderly recalls a childhood fear of thunderstorms, which could precede a tornado in her native Texas. Gomez’s mother recognized her daughter’s fear and provided her with books about storms, lightning, and thunder. This is accompanied by touching home video footage of a young Gomez held in her mother’s arms, playing innocently outside while thunder rumbles in the background.
“[She] actually said, ‘The more you learn about it, the less you’ll be afraid of it,'” recalls Gomez. “And it really helped.”
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For a moment, it looks like Gomez is ready to let her recovery journey unfold before our eyes, but this isn’t the movie we’re getting. The intimate documentary shows Gomez in crisis, and yes, her revival, but not much of what happens in between. Though Gomez boldly lets the camera hang as she cries over anxious thoughts and stares blankly out the window, perhaps overwhelmed by numbing depression, we never learn what bipolar disorder is, or how it affects her.
Bipolar disorder can be a serious mental illness, usually characterized by intense shifts in mood, energy, and activity. Some people experience manic episodes accompanied by symptoms of psychosis such as hallucinations and delusions. We also never learn that people with lupus, the autoimmune disease that affects Gomez, often experience depression.
Given the complexity of Gomez’s disease, it is surprising that no psychologists, psychiatrists or other healers appear on screen. Gomez has spoken to the media about how a type of treatment known as dialectical behavior therapy has contributed to her recovery, but she never mentions it in the movie.
This isn’t a criticism of Gomez or the filmmakers, as it’s an attempt to imagine how a project like this might otherwise address mental health in ways that help others, something Gomez suggests is vital to her. . What Gomez offers to viewers instead is the deep reassurance that they are not alone with their pain. The heartfelt condolences she shows to two young women who have attempted or contemplated suicide are striking scenes, not only because she acknowledges their suffering, but also because she embraces them without judgment or shame. If only a fraction of viewers model the empathy she displays, Gomez could indeed fulfill her hopes of saving lives.
But just as people need to hear that others, including a celebrity like Gomez, are struggling with their mental health, they also deserve to feel less alone during their recovery journey. It’s one thing to get a diagnosis — which often relies on access to quality health care — but an entirely different experience to put together a recovery plan. Treatment for Bipolar Disorder may include mood-stabilizing drugs and various forms of psychotherapy.
It’s easy to imagine why none of this is included in the film. Understandably, Gomez is concerned about privacy. Identifying members of her healthcare team can be too much of a risk. Providing details about the severity of her bipolar disorder, or how it manifests, may open up Gomez to questions from tour and film production insurers. Executives may wonder if Gomez’s mental health makes her a risk. She may have feared that including details about her treatment would seem dangerously prescriptive to her fans. (I’ve asked Apple TV+ reps about how the movie addresses these questions and will update the review if I get an answer.)
Such aspects of Gomez’s recovery could also have felt less compelling to director Alek Keshishian, who is famous for his candid portrayal of Madonna at the height of her fame in the 1991 documentary. Truth or Dare. In this film, the catalyst for Gomez’s recovery is a visually and emotionally evocative journey to Maasai Mara, Kenya, where she visits schools built in part thanks to her fundraising.
Sometimes these scenes threaten to become a cliché. When an emotionally detached, far from home, Gomez finds solace in the wisdom and resilience of the community members and schoolgirls she meets, a cynical viewer can be forgiven for questioning the motives behind her visit. There’s a delicate dividing line between the shift in perspective that such a journey offers, especially for someone prone to fretting over negative emotions, and seeking redemption from those with fewer resources who seem to lead simpler but more fulfilling lives.
What saves these scenes is Gomez’s emphasis on human connection and service. These are balms for psychological pain, a point later underlined by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, with whom Gomez appears virtually in a discussion about loneliness during the COVID-19 epidemic. The trip to Kenya fuels Gomez’s recovery, giving her a renewed sense of purpose and desire to pursue change in the US by creating a universal mental health curriculum for schools.
Shortly after Gomez returns home, she experiences a lupus flare and requires intensive treatment to reduce joint pain. The ease with which this is filmed, along with other lupus-related scenes, is a striking contrast to the lack of footage detailing the treatment of her bipolar disorder. It may inadvertently reinforce the idea that it is more acceptable to publicly document physical health conditions compared to mental illness.
Despite all the omissions, the film is a moving portrait of what it’s like to live with a mental illness, and more specifically Gomez’s determination to give meaning to her diagnoses. She is a dedicated advocate for mental health, like her recent trip to the White House demonstrates, and society is arguably better for the attention and fundraising it brings to the cause. Undoubtedly, her fans, along with interested viewers, will feel seen and understood by the film. Importantly, it powerfully counteracts the cruelty of those who maintain that mental illness is weakness and does not deserve kindness or empathy.
“If you’re struggling with your mental health, it’s knowing what to do and recognizing that,” Gomez says at the end of the film. “I had to relearn things that had completely fallen out of my head. It was like, hey, ‘You’re not a bad person. You’re not a rude person. You’re not crazy. You’re none of this. But you’re going to have to deal with this I know it’s a lot, but this is the reality.” I discovered I was in a relationship with bipolar and myself — it will be there. I’m just going to make it my friend now.”
Seeing Gomez endure so much pain and then make her way to this conclusion makes the film worth watching, even if we never get to see up close how she built this unique relationship with her illness. In this way, Selena Gomez: My Mind and Me raises more questions than the creators probably realize. Namely, when we reassure others that they are not alone, what do we say about the journey ahead?
If you are suicidal or going through a psychological crisis, talk to someone. You can reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988; the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860; or the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. Text “START” to Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday, 10:00 AM – 10:00 PM ET, or email [email protected]. If you don’t like the phone, please consider using the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline Chat at crisischat.org. Here’s a list of international sources.