Drug Abuse Isn’t Killing People — The Stigma of Mental Health Is.
2016 has been rough. But let’s not get back into the habit of disconnecting drug abuse and addiction from mental health issues.
A writer named Judy Ann recently penned a piece for Medium intersecting drug abuse, addiction and the frequent deaths of our most beloved, iconic celebrities. She contends that these two issues are the missing link in the growing narrative about the horrible year that was 2016. By her own lights, Ann’s thesis about the real reason that these larger-than-life figures succumbed to death — many of them at early ages — is an “unpopular opinion.” Indeed, unpopular is an understatement.
Ann’s opinion on this matter is not only unpopular. It’s plain wrong or, at best, extremely half-baked.
What she fails to mention as she dealt out her assessment of these 2016 tragedies is that most, if not all, of the celebrities who died way too soon lived with a mental illness. With these omissions, Ann comes dangerously close to victim-blaming.
Ann looks at two celebrities in particular to make her point: George Michael and Carrie Fisher. For good measure, she adds a cursory comment on Prince, who died in April. Let’s revisit those same personas and talk about what she conveniently left out of her argument.
Of Prince, Ann reminds readers about the mainstream reports that surfaced at the time of his death documenting his addiction to the opioid fentanyl. However, a strong case can be made that Prince’s propensity for relying on the opioid was likely linked to his lifelong battle with health issues, which he disclosed in this 1985 interview with Rolling Stone.
Says Prince, “During the Dirty Mind period, I would go into fits of depression and get physically ill. I would have to call people to help me get out of it. I don’t do that anymore.”
Add to this the fact that Prince suffered from severe hip pain — and seizures, the product of having epilepsy, and you will have an idea of why he gravitated toward drugs. But, Ann does not devote one sentence to this facet of Prince’s life, simply calling the reader’s attention to the singer’s drug use as a problem in itself and pressing forth.
When Ann rips into the late George Michael, she references an article that relies on the memory and testimony of friends who note that the gay superstar enthusiastically used cannabis and experimented with narcotics. “He spends all the day in a room with a pipe,” one friend remembered.
However, no attempt is made to balance their testimony with the singer’s own self-diagnosis of the underlying motivations driving his mental state.
Speaking with GQ in 2004, Michael recalls bouts with depression after finding out in 1991 that his then-partner was diagnosed with AIDS. Not long after this, when his mother disclosed that she had cancer, he went into a “black hole.” “I just used to sleep and sleep,” said Michael. “Some days I could barely put one foot in front of the other; it was real depression. I was on Prozac.”
He credits his 2004 boyfriend, Kenny Goss, with helping him to cope with the news and escape his suicidal thoughts.
The pressures of fame also weighed him down. “In the very early days of Wham! the attention felt great,” he mused, “but I do wonder how much freedom I gave away by trying to become something I wasn’t.”
Also, as recently as 2010, when Michael was arrested for driving under the influence, London’s Metropolitan Police reportedly not only found cannabis his possession but medication for depression as well.
And, as recently reported in Wear Your Voice, Carrie Fisher was very transparent and vocal about her mental illness. At age 29, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which is related to imbalances in brain chemistry. Here’s how Fisher described her condition to Diane Sawyer during an interview with ABC News: “I have a chemical imbalance that, in its most extreme state, will lead me to a mental hospital.”
Fisher did use cocaine, another aspect of her life she did not hide. However, her bipolar illness was as essential to her biography as drug use. Yet, as she did with Michael and Prince, Ann skates past any discussion of the implications of Fisher managing her mental disorder and dives headlong into a criticism of Fisher’s cocaine use. She does not allow for the possibility, scientifically explored here, that Fisher’s cocaine habit may have been a coping mechanism, a form of self-medication.
She also neglects to inform readers that addiction itself is a mental illness. What that means is that it’s highly probable that Fisher and Michael were dealing with comorbidity, a condition in which one individual experiences multiple forms of mental illness — for example, bipolar disorder and drug addiction. Moreover, statistics show that comorbidity is a huge problem in the U.S. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2014, 7.9 million adults had both a substance use disorder and another mental illness.
The National Institutes of Health, meanwhile, explains that drug addiction “changes the brain, disturbing the normal hierarchy of needs and desires.” Furthermore, “The resulting compulsive behaviors that override the ability to control impulses despite the consequences are similar to hallmarks of other mental illnesses.”
Aside from a few words on obesity and suicide, Ann dismisses all of this information. And for all her jibes at people holding superstitious beliefs about some mysterious force at play this past year, deifying 2016, her focus on alcohol(ism) and drug abuse as evil forces unto themselves that take hold of people is equally theological.
Listen, I get it — I really do. 2016 has panned out to be arguably the most trying year in modern humanity, from the election of Donald Trump to the death of your favorite celebrity. Still, what we cannot do — what we must be mindful of — is invoke an old trope, one that suggests that drug addiction exists in some kind of imaginary ether and is unrelated to the mental health and neurological circumstances of human beings.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article described comorbidity and drug addiction as essentially the same medical condition. Further research on our part has shown that the two behavioral conditions are not necessarily the same thing. This correction is reflected in the article.