But the online personality — who boasts nearly 3 million YouTube followers — has lived a private pain that she’s kept secret for her whole life, until now. In her new memoir Buffering, Hart, 29, opens up about her family’s battle with mental illness.
“I want to tell my story to help people,” Hart says in the new issue of PEOPLE. “And it’s a story I’ve always wanted to tell.”
Throughout her autobiography, Hart recalls her turbulent youth growing up in the Bay Area. Her parents, Annette and Noah, split when she was a baby after her mom suffered what they called at the time a “nervous breakdown.”
Hart and her sister Naomi, 33, were raised primarily by their mother in a cockroach-infested house that the author says Department and Child and Family Services would have classified as “uninhabitable.” When she and her older sister Naomi weren’t with their mother, they spent time with their dad, who was a devout Jehovah’s Witness.
- For more on Hannah Hart and her memoir Buffering, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.
Over the years, Hart watched as schizophrenia began to take over her mom’s life.
“It’s excruciating,” she says. “It’s really hard to see someone you love suffer like that and not be able to help them — and not get help from anyone else to help them.”
Hart’s mother — who had remarried — wasn’t the only person she watched suffer. When Hart was 18, her step-sister Rebecca committed suicide at the age of 17.
“It always breaks my heart because when you make a decision like that, you never give your life a chance to change,” says Hart. “And I wanted to write Buffering because I wanted people to see how life can be so different from one year to the next.”
Hart’s mother became homeless. But after the online star graduated college, Hart got her mom a place to live.
“Abandonment was never an option,” says Hart, who split her mother’s rent with her sister. “We love her — she’s our mom.”
Over the years, the digital influencer had an identity crisis of her own and says she had trouble reconciling her sexual orientation with the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witness faith her father raised her in.
While she’s loud, out and proud today, Hart spent years “trying to ungay myself,” she says. “I want all those little ‘gaybies’ and LGBTQ+ kids across America to know that they are totally normal and fine, and they are great. And the only thing that’s abnormal is our own fear of another person, our own lack of understanding—that’s what’s abnormal.”
Having struggled with self-harm, ADHD and depression herself, Hart sought help in recent years.
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of. If you need medicine, take medicine. If you need therapy, go to therapy!” she says. “Being conscious of it and being forgiving of yourself are the two biggest steps.”
With her own mental health under control, Hart — whose first My Drunk Kitchen video went viral in 2011 — began taking steps to finally get her mother help. She took photographs at and collected evidence from her mom’s house, which was in squalor.
Then, this April, she and her sister made a breakthrough. Their mother was arrested and put under a 5150, then a 5250 (both involuntary psychiatric holds), which ultimately led to Hart becoming her mother’s conservator for the next year.
“It’s not a relief, because the system doesn’t work. There’s no safety net for anyone,” Hart says, addressing her frustrations that many share regarding the mental health care system in the U.S.
The YouTube star — whose new Food Network show is due this year — says her ability to get her mom help came from her privilege and is certainly not the norm.
“I know it sounds like a happy ending, but only by virtue of the fact that I’m a famous, white, educated, mentally sound-after-years-of-therapy-and-medication and reasonably wealthy person,” she says. “How many people in this country have that?”
Today, living in a facility with therapy and medication, Hart’s mom is doing “awesome,” says the influencer. “We can have conversations-ish. She’s proud of me, and she’s just so brave.”
By sharing her harrowing (albeit all too common) story of her family’s mental illness struggles, Hart hopes it will help others.
“It’s unacceptable that we look at people who are mentally ill and think, ‘They failed,’ ” she says. “The truth is, our society has failed them.”
Buffering is on sale now.