Carrie Fisher, who died on December 27 after suffering a heart attack, was best known for her career in the arts as an actor, author, and script doctor. But for many people, she was an inspiration for far more personal reasons.
But – as many have pointed out since her death – she was also outspoken about her struggles with mental illness, something that can be a huge help for other people dealing with similar issues.
Just several weeks ago, Fisher wrote to a young person suffering from bipolar disorder – the same serious illness that she struggled with – in her advice column at The Guardian:
“We have been given a challenging illness, and there is no other option than to meet those challenges. 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 willingness to be an example was noticed by many.
I’m pretty open about being in recovery; I’ve been more circumspect about mental illness. In honor of Carrie Fisher: I’m bipolar, too.
— Ana Marie Cox (@anamariecox) December 27, 2016
Carrie Fisher didn’t just have an iconic role. She inspired millions who struggle with mental illness and addiction. That was her power.
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) December 27, 2016
Speaking out about personal experience with mental illness can make a huge difference for people struggling to seek treatment – and the choice to seek treatment can be dramatically important. Many don’t seek help because they aren’t comfortable acknowledging their struggle, largely because of social stigma.
Mental illness is common, Bethany Teachman, a professor and director of clinical training in UVA’s Department of Psychology, tells Business Insider via email. Approximately 25% to 50% of the population will experience mental illness at some point in their life. If people recognize that it’s not abnormal to have these struggles, it makes it easier to get treatment.
“Stigma of mental illness remains a serious problem that interferes with people seeking treatments that could dramatically improve their quality of life,” says Teachman. She says that people with social anxiety disorder often wait 15 to 20 years before seeking treatment, even though we know we have effective ways to deal with that condition. “This means people struggle for years, trying to hide their problems and not getting help, with enormous costs to their relationships, work, emotional and physical health.”
An illness like bipolar disorder can be particularly dangerous if untreated. Somewhere in between one-quarter and one-half of people with bipolar disorder attempt suicide at some point in their lives.
“It can make a big difference when people speak out about their mental heath challenges because it helps people to realize that these problems are common and don’t need to be hidden,” Teachman tells Business Insider.
And it’s important that people share their own real experiences. It’s not enough to just educate people about the existence of a condition like bipolar or anxiety or depression; it’s more helpful to actually hear what those experiences are like, since “people need opportunities to interact and realize that there is no ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ and to recognize that they are not alone and there is no shame in experiencing mental heath challenges or in seeking help,” says Teachman.
By frequently discussing and writing about her struggles, Fisher did exactly that.
At the same time, Teachman says it’s important that we hear these experiences from people we know, not just celebrities, since a celebrity experience can be a lot harder for many of us to relate to. For that, it may be helpful to glance at the tweets Fisher fans have been posting with the hashtag #InHonorOfCarrie, talking about their own struggles.
In honor of Carrie Fisher. I am outing myself too. I am bipolar. https://t.co/DlYr7jshw5
— Jeremy Hitchcock (@hitchcork) December 27, 2016
That openness is encouraging, but it’s important to note that the struggle to deal with stigma about mental illness has a long way to go. Teachman says that even people who aren’t consciously discriminatory can harbor implicit biases against people struggling with these conditions, and that it’s important to deal with those attitudes to make sure people get help.
“We have good treatments for many mental heath challenges, but people are not getting the care they need,” she says.