The Challenges of Mental illness, Addiction, and Celebrity
Another step in making sense of Robin William's suicide
Posted Aug 13, 2014
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.
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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