There is a moment in Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me in which it feels like the star’s world has cracked wide open, and she’s bravely invited viewers to witness what comes next.
Both of these things are somewhat true of the Apple TV+ documentary made about a six-year period in Gomez’s life. But the hour-and-a-half-long film does something curious 20 minutes in, when the singer and actress receives a bipolar disorder diagnosis in 2019, following hospitalization for a psychotic break.
Gomez, now 30, tells the viewer that when she first got out, she didn’t know how she’d cope with the diagnosis.
“I needed to keep learning about it,” she says. “I needed to take it day by day.”
Then she tenderly recalls a childhood fear of thunderstorms, which could precede a tornado in her native Texas. Recognizing her daughter’s terror, Gomez’s mother provided her with books about storms, lightning, and thunder. This is paired with touching home video footage of a young Gomez being held in her mother’s arms and playing innocently outside as thunder rumbles in the background.
“[She] basically said, ‘The more you learn about it, the less you’re going to be afraid of it,'” Gomez remembers. “And it really helped.”
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For a moment, it seems like Gomez is poised to let her recovery journey unfold before our eyes, but this is not the film we’re given. The intimate documentary shows Gomez in crisis, and yes, her revival, but not much of what happens in between. Though Gomez courageously allows the camera to linger as she weeps over anxious thoughts and stares blankly out the window, perhaps overcome by numbing depression, we never learn what bipolar disorder is, or how it affects her.
Bipolar disorder can be a severe mental illness, typically characterized by intense shifts in mood, energy, and activity. Some people experience manic episodes accompanied by symptoms of psychosis like hallucinations and delusions. We also never learn that people with lupus, the autoimmune disease that affects Gomez, commonly experience depression.
Given the complexity of Gomez’s illness, it’s surprising that no psychologists, psychiatrists, or other healing professionals appear onscreen. Gomez has spoken to the media about how a type of treatment known as dialectical behavioral therapy has been instrumental to her recovery, but she never mentions it in the film.
This is not a criticism of Gomez or the filmmakers inasmuch as it’s an attempt to imagine how else a project like this could address mental health in ways that help others, something that Gomez suggests is vitally important to her. What Gomez offers to viewers instead is profound reassurance that they’re not alone with their pain. The genuine compassion she shows two young women who’ve attempted or contemplated suicide are standout scenes, not only because she recognizes their suffering, but also because she embraces them without judgment or shame. If only a fraction of viewers model the empathy she displays, Gomez may indeed fulfill her hope of saving lives.
Yet just as people need to hear that others, including a celebrity like Gomez, struggle with their mental health, they also deserve to feel less alone in their recovery journey. It is one thing to receive a diagnosis — which is often dependent on access to high-quality health care — but an entirely different experience to piece together a recovery plan. Treatment for bipolar disorder can include mood-stabilizing medications and various forms of psychotherapy.
It’s easy to imagine why none of this is included in the film. Gomez may understandably have privacy concerns. Identifying members of her health care team may feel like too big a risk. Providing details about the severity of her bipolar disorder, or how it manifests, may open Gomez up to questions from insurers of tour and film productions. Executives could wonder if Gomez’s mental health makes her a liability. She may have feared that including details about her treatment would seem dangerously prescriptive to her fans. (I’ve asked Apple TV+ representatives about the film’s approach to these questions and will update the review if provided with a response.)
Such aspects of Gomez’s recovery could’ve also felt less compelling to director Alek Keshishian, who is famous for his unvarnished portrait 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 trip to Maasai Mara, Kenya, where she visits schools built partly because of her fundraising efforts.
At times, these scenes risk becoming a cliché. When an emotionally unmoored, far-from-home Gomez finds comfort in the wisdom and resilience of the community members and schoolgirls she meets, a cynical viewer could be forgiven for questioning the motives behind her visit. There is a delicate line between the perspective-shift such a trip offers, particularly for someone prone to ruminating on negative emotions, and seeking salvation from people with fewer resources who seem to live simpler but more rewarding lives.
What saves these scenes is Gomez’s emphasis on human connection and service. These are balms for psychic pain, a point later underscored by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, with whom Gomez makes a virtual appearance in a discussion about loneliness during the COVID-19 epidemic. The trip to Kenya fuels Gomez’s recovery, giving her a newfound sense of purpose, and the desire to pursue change in the U.S. by creating a universal mental health curriculum for schools.
Soon 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, provides a striking contrast to the absence of footage detailing treatment of her bipolar disorder. It may unintentionally reinforce the notion that it’s more acceptable to publicly document physical health conditions compared to mental illness.
For all of its omissions, the film is a moving portrait of what it’s like to live with mental illness, and more specifically, Gomez’s determination to make meaning out of her diagnoses. She is a committed mental health advocate, as her recent trip to the White House demonstrates, and society is arguably better for the attention and fundraising she brings to the cause. No doubt her fans, along with interested viewers, will feel seen and understood by the film. Importantly, it powerfully counters the cruelty of those who insist that mental illness is weakness, undeserving of kindness or empathy.
“When you’re struggling with your mental health, the essential part of it is knowing what to do and recognizing that,” Gomez says at the end of the film. “I had to relearn things that completely fell out of my mind. It was like, hey, ‘You’re not a bad person. You’re not a gross person. You’re not crazy. You’re not any of this. But you’re going to have to deal with this. I know it’s a lot, but this is the reality.’ I found having a relationship with bipolar and myself — it’s going to be there. I’m just making it my friend now.”
Seeing Gomez endure so much pain, then find her way to this conclusion, makes the film worth watching, even if we never see up close how she built this unique relationship with her illness. In that sense, Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me raises more questions than its makers probably realize. Namely, once we reassure others that they’re not alone, what do we say next about the journey that’s to come?
If you’re feeling suicidal or experiencing a mental health crisis, please talk to somebody. 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 from 10:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET, or email [email protected]. If you don’t like the phone, consider using the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline Chat at crisischat.org. Here is a list of international resources.