In the media’s efforts to cover and shed light on this week’s news about Robin Williams’ death, I was asked to make a few general comments about the mental health issues that may face celebrities. Metro US (New York City) shared some of my thoughts here (see page 29). I thought it might be useful to share all of my remarks, offered from my perspective as a psychologist and psychoanalyst who has worked hard to understand why we human beings do the things we do. Hopefully, as we process our reactions to this upsetting news, we will have an opportunity to learn something about ourselves, our brothers and sisters, and the challenges of mental illness, addiction, and celebrity.
Individuals who are very talented artistically and achieve early success or fame are in a very vulnerable position in life. As artists, they tend to be extremely sensitive by nature—this is part of their genius and sometimes a burden which they must bear. To be brilliant in comedy, acting, writing, music, art, public speaking, and other creative endeavors, one must be keenly in touch with deep emotional experience, sensitive to nuance, and willing to dive into uncharted psychological territory. In order to be great, one must risk so much: rejection, failure, and even humiliation.
As part of this dynamic, it is common for creative individuals to develop a perfectionistic relationship with their craft, feeling harshly critical of themselves when they fall short or even when they are succeeding. They can become very reliant on outside feedback to affirm their worth, whether this feedback comes in the form of reviews, money, fame, or career advancement. An over-reliance on others for self-worth is a precarious position for any human being and especially for those with celebrity. The more fame and acclaim one achieves, the more there is to lose and the greater the drive to have even more. Consequently, a bad review, a cancelled show, poor sales, financial troubles, or the feeling that one's career is fading with time or age can lead to tremendous anxiety. Such individuals may live under a chronic worry that they could lose their success at any time—and, with it, their sense of personal value.
Add into the mix the tabloid culture and the relentless pressure of the paparazzi which seems to enjoy nothing more than seeing the successful fail and exploiting their human weaknesses. Envy is an ugly aspect of human nature and one that makes life in the public eye enormously challenging. There is tremendous pressure to keep up a false front and little room for celebrities to feel that they can be regular people with regular lives, admitting their failures, learning through trial and error, and seeking help when they need it.
For some, drugs and alcohol offer relief from these painful and stressful experiences. Drugs and alcohol can be used as a kind of synthetic solution to life’s problems, a way to numb anxiety and to create immediate pleasure which someone in this state of mind so desperately needs. When you have the experience of being able to successfully alleviate such painful feelings in a quick, immediate way, such a solution becomes difficult to resist even when one recognizes that it is problematic and even when one works hard to overcome it. One may have periods of sobriety, making use of rehab and support groups such as those found in 12-step programs. But addiction is a chronic, life-long disease with an up-and-down course that wears both on an individual psyche as well as his or her support system. Relapse is common and is stressful and discouraging. Add into the mix clinical depression—which often goes hand-in-hand with addiction—and you have a perfect storm. The depression is treated by drugs and alcohol; drug and alcohol use lead to more depression; and so on. The downward spiral becomes difficult to reverse, even when one wishes to change and even when one gets help.
At its root, suicide reflects an individual’s profound feeling of helplessness in his or her ability to cope with the demands of life as well as hopelessness that life can get better. With ongoing setbacks that are a normal part of chronic illnesses such as depression and addiction, it is possible to lose faith that there are enough resources (inside and outside) that can make enough of a difference to go on and keep trying.
As a society, we have a long way to go in our efforts to decrease the stigma associated with mental illness and addiction. So many people suffer from them, including our heroes and our idols. Beneath any successful persona is just another human being, as vulnerable, sensitive, and imperfect as any other—and so deserving of our patience, our respect, and our understanding.
Copyright 2014 Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.
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