The Show Must Go On! (Unless, of Course, You Need a Mental Health Break)

A slew of actors, pop stars and athletes have been taking “mental health” time-outs. Is this a good thing? Or do some need to just suck it up?

mental health break
Simone Biles; Naomi Osaka, Jonah Hill, Shawn Mendes, Jordan Elsass and Tom Holland (Getty Images)

It used to have a different euphemism. If a star needed a break from a project because of a drinking problem or an eating disorder or just an old-fashioned psychological meltdown, a press agent would release a statement blaming the sudden hiatus on “exhaustion.” 

As PR baloney goes, it was a gorgeous lie, suggesting that the actor or actress in question was the victim of too crushing a work ethic and simply needed a breather from their own relentless perfectionism. Chef’s kiss to whoever came up with it.

Today, though, performers are apparently inexhaustible. They still unexpectedly bolt from the public stage — in fact, in recent months a shocking number of them have been dashing off for unscheduled respites — but nowadays that vanishing act goes by a different name. It’s called a “mental health” break. 

Most recently, Jonah Hill announced that, for mental health reasons, he would not be doing media appearances to promote any of his upcoming projects, including his new Netflix rom-com “You People,” which also stars Eddie Murphy, Nia Long, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and David Duchovny, all of whom presumably will be making themselves available to promote the film (except for Murphy, who, as far as interviews are concerned, has been on a mental health break since 1997, when cops pulled him over with a transgender sex worker in his car). After all, promoting a film is almost as important to the job of being a movie star as acting in it. 

Or at least it used to be.

“I have spent nearly 20 years experiencing anxiety attacks, which are exacerbated by media appearances and public facing events,” Hill wrote in an Aug. 17 open letter explaining his time-out. Indeed, the actor, who last appeared in Adam McKay’s Oscar-nominated “Look Up,” is so stressed he won’t even be promoting “Stuzz,” the mental health documentary he recently finished filming with his own therapist.

“I usually cringe at letters or statements like this,” Hill went on. “But I understand that I am of the privileged few who can afford to take time off. I won’t lose my job while working on my anxiety.”

Shawn Mendes
Shawn Mendes at the Met Gala in 2021 (Getty Images)

A few weeks before Hill’s open letter, pop singer Shawn Mendes announced he was canceling his 40-plus city concert tour mid-run, telling fans he needed to tend to his mental health. “I started this tour excited to finally get back to playing live after a long break due to the pandemic,” he wrote in a statement. “But the reality is I was not at all ready for how difficult touring would be after this time away.”

Meanwhile, “Spider-Man” star Tom Holland announced he’s taking a break from social media for “mental health” reasons while actor Jordan Elsass quit his role as Clark Kent’s son on The CW’s “Superman & Lois” after posting on Instagram in June that he’d been struggling “with a number of things all pretty much revolving around mental health and well-being.”

Athletes are also succumbing to the siren call of the off switch. Tennis champ Naomi Osaka has been open about her “long bouts of depression” since winning the U.S. Open in 2018 and withdrew from last year’s French Open citing the pressure of both the competition and post-match press conferences. At last year’s Olympics, U.S. gymnast Simone Biles drew a lot of sympathy — and criticism — when she withdrew from the competition saying that her mental health took precedence. And boxer Adrien Broner just pulled out of his upcoming junior welterweight bout against Omar Figueroa Jr., telling fans that “mental health is real.” (Figueroa, for one, wasn’t buying it, accusing Broner of using mental health as a “f—ing excuse.”)

To be sure, mental health is indeed real. It’s obviously a good thing that psychiatric conditions are being taken more seriously in the workplace, including on Hollywood soundstages and in boxing rings. And although it’s not my job — nor anybody’s — to police the veracity of a star’s mental health claims, Elsass, for one, is clearly going through something dark; in July he checked himself into a facility for a month-long stay. I have no idea what’s up with Jonah Hill or Tom Holland or any of the others, but if they say they’re in a bad place, who am I to argue?

Jordan Elsass (Getty Images)

Still, what happened to that showbiz adage “The show must go on”? 

Lady Gaga was once so sick during a concert, she vomited on stage — four times! — and she kept on singing. Daniel Craig broke a leg while filming the 2015 James Bond film “Spectre” and continued shooting for the remaining nine months of production. Tom Cruise shot part of “Mission Impossible 6” with a broken ankle. Natalie Portman shot parts of “Black Swan” with a dislocated rib. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman did some of his finest acting — his scenes as Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” — while battling a flu and a 102-degree fever. Lord knows what sort of mental health day that tortured genius was having at the time.

Maybe it’s generational. Many older entertainers seem compulsively determined to get the job done no matter what the physical or psychological toll. Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Heath Ledger — there has always been a bit of madness to some actors’ extreme Method. That insane level of actorly commitment — remember when Daniel Day-Lewis spent six months alone in the wilderness preparing for “The Last of the Mohicans”? — may not be even the slightest bit beneficial to anyone’s mental health, but it helped produce some unforgettable performances.

The mental health breaks that young performers have been taking lately may also be a hangover from the pandemic, Hollywood’s version of the Great Resignation. Like pretty much everybody in every occupation, a lot of stars appear to be second-guessing their life choices and how they’ve been balancing their priorities. 

Good for them. In fact, I can relate. Right now, for instance, part of me feels compelled to do my job and make the effort to finish this article by writing a smart, pithy kicker that sums everything up with a few catchy lines. But you know what? Who needs the stress?