It’s been a week of both remembrance and hope in the music world. News that Demi Lovato was rushed to hospital with a suspected overdose prompted fans and fellow musicians to share messages of love, support and best wishes.
And of course this week marks seven years since the tragic passing of Amy Winehouse, whose troubled life sparked controversial headlines that often clouded her brilliance. Two talented, incredibly successful, powerful stars who seemingly have (or, sadly in Amy’s case, had) it all.
There are two huge, interlinked problems that those in the arts industry experience. Firstly, the “show must go on” mentality and the responsibility that comes with being a star - a role that nobody else can step up to when an artist becomes ill. Secondly, enabling behaviours in the professional support networks that often surround artists can unwittingly support an addiction, rather than the individual experiencing it.
There’s an added complexity when it comes to power and profile. It’s therefore entirely understandable that people would assume life with addiction is different for stars than it is with our friends or neighbours who may struggle to access services, for example. The journey may be different, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easier.
Stars have the money to pay for medications and doctors and a spell in a luxury rehab facility. But as a star first and a person second (which is sadly how celebrities are often seen), addiction will always find a way to exploit the naively willing players around it.
Rehab isn’t a complete treatment - it’s a starting point. Leaving rehab and returning to a world where nothing has changed can often only mean one thing - relapse. Add to that the fact that there’s a tour looming or a TV appearance or a new album to be completed, and you’ve got an added pressure. A pressure unlike any other industry, because you simply cannot call an agency and get a temp to step in. The celebrity is the only person who can do their job.
You can imagine the people who work for stars may feel that they have to do whatever the celebrity asks. Look at Michael Jackson and his doctor who allegedly continued to prescribe more medication - a sticking plaster over a huge problem that simply perpetuated and accelerated the illness.
But in terms of the difference, I think it depends what the desired outcome is and whether that desire is to support the individual in question, or to ensure an audience don’t request ticket refunds. Either way, neither approach is good for somebody suffering from mental illness and addiction.
In arts and entertainment, the person at the centre is but one element in a brand or business. It was probably quite endearing, in the early days, to build an audience around this ‘wild child’, who appeared drunk on TV and still everybody loved her - perhaps even loved her that little bit more. But what happens when functioning is drawn to an abrupt end and we all fall out of love thanks to gig cancellations, ugly bloody paparazzi pics and a darker side of self destruction?
Sadly, when we see these darker images, we lose sympathy. But in fact we are voyeurs to somebody’s intense suffering hitting its peak. We are watching somebody at crisis point.
The wild child is not a true image. The vulnerable child is perhaps more accurate. No addict wants to use. It’s the illness relentlessly whispering in their ear. And it’s the same with many other mental illnesses - think about eating disorders for example. The voice of addiction is a strong one, and if that’s what we’re hearing, that’s often what well-meaning loved ones or colleagues will enable. And in the arts and entertainment industry, artists do seem to have a higher prevalence of mental illness. I recently put out an anonymous survey for performers which showed that 50% of respondents had experienced mental illness, compared to the one in four statistic we relate to the general population. 70% of respondents also said they would be too afraid to disclose their illness to an employer.
At one end of the scale, the jobbing actor may be scared of losing work in case they are deemed unreliable. Perhaps at the other, the celebrity whose illness is being masked to please the fans is seeing no opportunity for respite.
So whether it’s a sticking plaster to finish a tour, or a well-meaning attempt to give somebody what we think they want, it is never going to work. The only thing that can help an addict is to press pause. Let them recover. Give them time. Regardless of the financial cost. If we don’t, the loss will inevitably be far greater in the end.
To read more on the topic, my book, A Series Of Unfortunate Stereotypes, published by charitable mental health publisher Trigger Press, is available now.