A New Hope for Mental Illness

Every year, my husband and I throw a big New Year’s Eve party. Most of the time, we celebrate the coming of a new year with food, champagne and the company of good friends. This weekend’s party will be particularly poignant for me. I will be toasting not to the coming of 2017 but, rather, to the end of 2016.

This year has been particularly tumultuous for me, characterized by significant professional challenges and two recent hospitalizations. This year was also capped off by the passing of my mother, who recently succumbed to the very health problem that I have been struggling with for the past three months. The only positive thing to say about 2016 is that I have a new found appreciation for all that I have, and a plan to achieve better work-life balance in the coming year.

Of course, I am not the only person who has faced personal and professional challenges this year. In fact, my own struggles cannot compare to those whose lives have been irreparably changed by the war in Syria, the gun violence in Chicago, or the terror attacks in Belgium, Florida, France, Germany and elsewhere.

We’ve also lost what seems to be an extremely long list of political figures, sports legends, and celebrated entertainers in 2016, including Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro, boxing champion and political activist Muhammad Ali, and award-winning artist Prince. In the past couple of days, we’ve even lost two of my teenage idols: musician George Michael and actress-writer Carrie Fisher [Author’s Note: After this commentary was written and recorded, it was announced that Carrie’s mother Debbie Reynolds also passed away unexpectedly]. While I don’t normally pay too much attention to comings and goings of celebrities like George and Carrie, I think it is worth commenting on the tragic deaths of these two public figures.

Both Carrie Fisher and George Michael – just like far too many celebrities and average folk — struggled with addiction. Mr. Michael’s abuse of cocaine and heroin was largely secret, coming to light (and inappropriately so, I might add) as the result of post-mortem interviews and tweets by his so-called friends and colleagues.

By contrast, Ms. Fisher’s battle with alcohol and prescription drug abuse was well known, chronicled by the actress herself in the autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge. In going public about her struggles with sobriety, one of only a handful of celebrities who have done so willingly , Carrie helped to humanize the problem of addiction. One need only look to the flood of posts on social media following the news of Ms. Fisher’s death to understand just how much of an impact that she had in inspiring others to come to terms with their own addiction. Moreover, it wasn’t just alcoholism that Carrie Fisher struggled with. She was also an outspoken advocate for other mental illnesses, courageously sharing her own experience with bipolar disorder.

Sometimes called manic depression, bipolar disorder is a common illness that is characterized by sudden and extreme mood swings. As many as six million Americans — almost 3% of the adult population — suffer from the illness, experiencing dramatic shifts in mood and energy that range from euphoric highs (mania or hypomania) to crippling lows (depression). A related illness, major depressive disorder, affects approximately 15 million Americans; in any given year, nearly 7% of the adult population in the US will suffer from depression.

In most cases, depressive and bipolar disorders can be controlled with medication and psychological counseling. Because of the social stigma associated with mental illness, however, more than half of those living with these disorders go undiagnosed or untreated. Sadly, untreated depressive and bipolar disorders are a leading cause of suicide in the US, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the 30,000 suicides reported annually. Studies also suggest that 55% of those whose illness is untreated abuse illicit or prescription drugs while 45% abuse alcohol. Carrie Fisher herself believed that her years-long battle with addiction was a result of her undiagnosed bipolar disorder.

Along with other well-deserved epithets, 2016 will be remembered as the year that the mental health community lost a remarkable advocate. Despite Ms. Fisher’s untimely passing, however, there is still some hope (even “a new hope” should we want to play off of the subtitle to Star Wars Episode IV, the movie that made Carrie a household name). Shortly after her death last Tuesday, the hashtag #InHonorOfCarrie began to trend on Twitter. Within a couple of hours, nearly 200,000 people had used the hashtag to open up publicly about their own fight with mental illness.

Like her on-screen persona Leia Organa, Carrie Fisher seems to have inspired a revolt against the stigma of living with mental illness, inspiring a generation with her words. As she so famously stated in her 2008 novel Wishful Drinking, “being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of. They should issue medals along with the steady stream of medication.”

Like so many who have left us this year, Carrie will be missed but the Rebellion that she once commanded will continue on.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on December 29, 2016, and is available on the WAMC website.]

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About Sean Philpott-Jones

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Sean holds advanced degrees in microbiology, medical anthropology, and bioethics. He is currently Chair of the Bioethics Department at Clarkson University's Capital Region Campus and Director of the Bioethics Program of Clarkson University-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Director of two Fogarty-funded programs to provide research ethics education in Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean Basin. Until his term expired in August 2012, he served as Chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board, an advisory panel that reviews the scientific and ethical aspects of research involving human participants submitted to the EPA for regulatory purposes.
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