The tragic loss of Robin Williams to suicide is one of, unfortunately, many tragic endings to the lives of our favorite celebrities. Although the majority of individuals with mental illness are able to cope successfully with their disorders, the ones we tend to hear about in the media are those who don't, especially if they're famous.
Psychological disorders affect as many as half of all adults, according to numerous surveys. The most prevalent mental health disorder is substance abuse, estimated to occur in over half of the adult U.S. population (Moore et al., 2005). Anxiety disorders are the second highest psychological disorder to occur in the population, affecting 29% of U.S. adults (Kessler et al., 2005). Even though these are common disorders, many people are still reluctant to seek help, much less admit that they are suffering from what are often disabling conditions.
We may criticize the celebrity tell-all for its lurid details, just as we harshly judge the bad behavior of the rich and famous. However, by confessing to their own psychological difficulties, these celebrities are doing more than trying to sell books. Their stories provide average adults, who may be suffering from one or more mental health conditions, with the inspiration to receive the help they need.
In my recently published textbook Abnormal Psychology: Clinical Perspectives on Psychological Disorders, 7e (with Richard Halgin), I present the “Real Stories” of well-known people with a range of psychological disorders. These stories, written for the book by American University clinical psychology grad student Jennifer O’Brien, are taken from biographies either authored by the celebrity or by someone close to the celebrity. We also include several historical figures, including Vincent Van Gogh and Ludwig Van Beethoven.
In this article, I summarize 3 of the 15 Real Stories from the book. I think you will find them to be compelling, insightful, and- most importantly- informative about common conditions that can affect any of us at any time in life. Sadly, we will plan to include Robin Williams in the next edition, hoping to help our students understand and appreciate from this well-known figure, the challenges that face all with psychological disorders.
Elyn Saks: Schizophrenia
In her memoir, The Center Cannot Hold, UCLA professor Elyn Saks tells the moving story of her lifeling struggle with schizophrenia. Her story provides a unique perspective on one of the most debilitating psychological disorders, and offers a firsthand account of the experience of psychosis. Elyn begins the book by describing the first signs of her illness as a child: "When I was about eight, I suddenly needed to do things a little differently than my parents would have wished me to do them. I developed ... a few little quirks...some nights I couldn't shut off my bedroom light unless my shoes were all lined up in my closet. Or beside my bed. Some nights, I couldn't shut off my bedroom light until the books on my shelves were organized just so." Throughout her formative years, Elyn continued to experience what she now recognizes as prodromal symptoms of schizophrenia. Yet, she was able to attend college and become valedictorian at Vanderbilt College, and study at Oxford on the prestigious Marshall scholarship. Eventually, she required hospitalization as her symptoms worsened. Nevertheless, determined to finish her degree at Oxford, Elyn continued at her studies while seeing a psychoanalyst for 5 days a week. After leaving England, Elyn obtained a law degree from Yale University even while she continued to struggle with psychotic episodes that resulted in several long hospitalizations. She had discovered a passion, throughout her struggles, for helping psychiatric patients and now speaks publicly about overcoming the stigma of mental illness. Her life and work offer hopes for individuals with this often believed to be incurable disease. When explaining why she decided to write the book and "out" herself as mentally ill, Saks states that "I want to bring hope to those who suffer from schizophrenia, and understanding to those who do not."
Daniel Tammet: Asperger’s Disorder
“I was born on January 31, 1979—a Wednesday. I know it was a Wednesday, because the date is blue in my mind and Wednesdays are always blue, like the number 9 or the sound of loud voices arguing.” Daniel was 26 years old when he wrote his autobiography, Born on a Blue Day, which describes in vivid detail his experiences that are both a part of any other child’s development and those that are far rarer. Much like those with savant syndrome, Daniel has Asperger’s Disorder and throughout the book he describes having many experiences during his childhood that are consistent with the diagnosis.
When Daniel was a child, the scientific world knew little about developmental disorders, and his parents could not understand what their son was experiencing. At 4 years, Daniel began having seizures and doctors diagnosed him with temporal lobe epilepsy. He took medication for about three years until the seizures subsided. His doctors now believe that these seizures lead to savant syndrome.
He recalls that as a child he took comfort in the daily routines at school, and would become highly anxious should the routines be upset in any way. When he was feeling particularly anxious, he would bang his head against a wall, or run home to his parent’s house when he felt overwhelmed during school. Looking back, Daniel wonders “What must the other children have made of me? I don’t know, because I have no memory of them at all. To me they were the background to my visual and tactile experiences.”
Daniel describes that his synesthesia (a neurologically based condition in which sensory or cognitive pathway stimulation leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway) causes a blurring of his senses and emotions when someone presents him with numbers or words. He writes, “The word ladder, for example, is blue and shiny, while hoop is a soft, white word.”
Daniel’s savant syndrome grants him the ability to see letters and numbers as colors and textures, and has led to some remarkable lifetime achievements. For example, Daniel has taught himself to speak at least ten languages, including Icelandic which he learned in just four days as part of the filming for a documentary in which he participated. In 2005, Daniel set the British and European record for reciting 22,514 digits of pi in just over five hours. Although he has gained considerable media attention for his extraordinary abilities, Daniel enjoys a quiet life which he spends mostly at home where he takes pleasure in his daily routines. He has also found strength through attending church, and especially enjoys the ritual aspect of it. From time to time he gives talks for the National Autistic Society and the National Society for Epilepsy and writes that he hopes to continue contributing to an understanding and acceptance of developmental disorders. Daniel has gone on to write another book, Embracing the Wide Sky, in addition to many other articles and public appearances.
These brave individuals, by sharing their stories so publicly, give us hope that we can turn our lives around when psychological challenges come our way. In a later blog, I will share several more of these fascinating first-person accounts.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012
Kessler, R. C., Chiu, W. T., Demler, O., Merikangas, K. R., & Walters, E. E. (2005). Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of 12-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(6), 617-627.
Moore, A. A., Gould, R., Reuben, D. B., Greendale, G. A., Carter, M. K., Zhou, K., & Karlamangla, A. (2005). Longitudinal patterns and predictors of alcohol consumption in the United States. American Journal of Public Health, 95(3), 458-465. doi: 95/3/458 [pii]\
Whitbourne, S.K. & Halgin, R.P. (2013). Abnormal Psychology : Clinical Perspectives on Psychological Disorders, 7e update. New York : McGraw-Hill.