Carrie Fisher’s Fight to End Mental Illness Stigma
Hollywood lost an excellent actress and writer this past December when Carrie Fisher, age 60, passed away after a heart attack. Most people are familiar with Fisher’s iconic performances as Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy, as Meg Ryan’s best friend in When Harry Met Sally, or as the Mysterious Woman The Blues Brothers; but Fisher was not only one of Hollywood’s most recognizable personalities — she was a vocal advocate for individuals suffering from Bipolar Disorder.
Herself diagnosed with Bipolar in 1984, Fisher refused to accept her diagnosis until 1989, after checking into rehab for her struggles with drug addiction and alcoholism. While acclimating to a sober life, the deep-seated issues of her disorder began to manifest. She was forced to face her illness head-on, and did so with unparalleled humor and bravery.
Through her memoirs, including Wishful Drinking, The Princess Diarist, Shockaholic, and the semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge, Carrie’s audience learned of her lifelong struggles with mental illness — as well as the various treatments she received, ranging from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
Rather than conceal her troubles, Fisher broadcasted them to the world, hoping to reduce the stigma that surrounds mental illness (Bipolar disorder in particular) and prevents those afflicted from seeking help. Dr. Terrence Keller, Stanford Professor of Psychology, related to People Magazine in memoriam of Carrie Fisher’s life and legacy:
“Mrs. Fisher was an important advocate in decreasing the stigma around bipolar disorder…One of the things she did was medicalize the problem and did not see it as a character flaw. Making bipolar disorder like any other medical disorder decreases stigma. And linking it to creativity—but not romanticizing it—helps show that there might be some kind of silver lining.”
Fisher remained a positive spokesperson for mental illness throughout her life. She is an optimal example that vigorous public education about mental illness is essential to overcoming stigma and negative connotation.
In Fisher’s “Advice from the Dark Side” column, she often used her experience with the illness to help others. In late November, less than a month before her death, Fisher told a man dealing with bipolar disorder:
“Think of it as an opportunity to be heroic — not ‘I survived living in Mosul during an attack’ heroic, but an emotional survival. An opportunity to be a good example to others who might share our disorder. That’s why it’s important to find a community — however small — of bipolar people to share experiences…”
Belonging to a community, studies have shown, can greatly affect the recovery rate and healthful maintenance of mental illness. In addition, the wider shift toward communal acceptance of mental illness as a disease, rather than a moral failing, creates a more sustainable environment for patients. In Jackie Goldstein’s historical overview of stigma for NPR, “Community-Based Care Can Reduce the Stigma of Mental Illness”, Goldstein explains the importance of community support: “The voice of stigma originates in the community, but so does the voice of hope.”
It is that very voice of hope that Carrie Fisher fought so hard to bring forth in our conversations about mental illness. For years to come, the red lines she obliterated and the preconceptions she dismantled with her honesty, her openness, and her compassion will continue to create safer communities for those in need of care.
Rest in peace, Carrie — you will be missed.
To learn more about Bipolar Disorder, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ website. If you or someone you know may be displaying symptoms of the disorder, do not hesitate to contact us at MindPath Care Centers to find treatment.
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