The list of celebrity deaths from drug use and overdose is long, as this memorial wall illustrates. From Elvis Presley to Prince, Marilyn Monroe to Michael Jackson, there is a price to fame. Whether it be the pressure of too much attention, the lack of privacy, loneliness at the top, or feeling undeserving of it all, being a celebrity has its pitfalls and downsides, oftentimes leading to self-medication in the form of addictive substances as a means to cope.
Sure, it comes with its perks – money can buy a lot of things – but the cost of celebrity is high.
Throughout modern history, society has been enamored with fame and become increasingly voyeuristic with reality television, social media and a nonstop news cycle. There is no longer such a thing as privacy or anonymity, which can certainly take its toll.
And very recent celebrity deaths related to mental health issues of depression and anxiety – like that of Tim Bergling, the Swedish DJ-producer who performed as Avicii who died of an apparent suicide last month, actor Verne Troyer, and singer Scott Hutchison who also apparently committed suicide after living and singing about depression for years – have the collective experience of self-medicating with substances to erase the pain.
There is no doubt, the pressures of always being in the spotlight and having to live up to super-sized expectations can be profoundly difficult. Since we rarely see what’s really under the façade, we likely have no idea how bad it gets. It comes as a stark, shocking reality that people we look up to or admire can be struggling internally in ways similar to us. The very human problems of anxiety, depression, attention deficit and mood disorders don’t discriminate. Neither do drug or alcohol problems.
We learn of these celebrities dying, hear stories of their plights, and mourn their loss. It is tragic. Yet there persists a stigma when one hears their neighbor next door or the woman in finance has entered treatment for mental health or substance use issues. There’s judgment for the young adult for getting high every day and still living with his parents. There are protests when those seeking recovery try to move into neighborhoods. There’s mocking. There’s shaming. There’s stigma.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) is promoting the theme of “CureStigma.” One in 5 Americans is affected by mental health conditions, and about 23 million Americans (8.6 percent of the adult population) need treatment for drug or alcohol use. Many people who have substance use disorders are also diagnosed with mental health disorders and vice versa, called comorbidity. In fact, multiple national population surveys have found that about half of those who experience a mental illness during their lives will also experience a substance use disorder and vice versa.
The stigma individuals experience is toxic to mental health, NAMI explains, because it creates an environment of shame, fear and silence that deters or prevents them from seeking help and treatment. The perceptions of mental illness and substance use disorder won’t change unless we act to change it. And this applies to you and me just as much as it does to the rich and famous.
NAMI says “Stigma is 100% curable. Compassion, empathy and understanding are the antidote. Your voice can spread the cure.” I love this for its barefaced accuracy. We can be part of the solution. We can afford our fellow man and woman the same kindness that we have when we grieve for our favorite musician who lived a hard life in the spotlight. We can encourage treatment without criticism for our family member who needs it, and support the efforts of those seeking to live a productive life of recovery even if it’s right next door.
The stigma with mental health and addiction, no matter where it’s aimed, needs to stop. And that starts with you.