Rock Hudson's death from AIDS was among the first dominos to fall before governments spent serious dollars on safe sex campaigns and research for a cure. HIV/AIDS is now a sexy disease, not just an STD.
But mental illness will never get celebrity status regardless of how many famous people fall victim. There is nothing sexy about psychotic or mood disorders.
Cigar & Bipolar
The late Rene Rivkin, a prominent Australian stockbroker recently sentenced to gaol for insider trading, was not the first celebrity to suffer from what the ancient Greeks called "melancholia". Nor was he the first person to take his own life as a result. Yes, AIDS kills. But then, so does depression.
Rene Rivkin lived a flamboyant lifestyle. The son of Russian Jewish and royalist migrants who fled following the Leninist revolution, Rene was born in Shanghai. His family migrated to Australia. Rene grew up in a time when bipolar disorder in children was dismissed as bad behaviour or irresponsibility.
Rene went into the finance industry and took the stockbroking world by storm. He was the stockbroker to many in Sydney’s high society, and enjoyed lighting up a cigar in front of photographers and their accompanied scribes.
But Rene was also an extraordinarily generous man. He donated millions to mainstream charities such as the Salvation Army. He rarely gloated over his good deeds, preferring the public image of a man drowning in fabulous wealth.
A Wealth of Unhappiness
Rene had it all. A beautiful and adoring wife, intelligent and successful children, a business that operated like a mint and plenty of friends in high places. When he was being sentenced by the Supreme Court of NSW, a long line of Sydney luminaries from politics, media and business attended court to give testimony on Rene’s good fame and character.
Rene was sentenced to weekend detention. On his first day in gaol, he collapsed and was taken to hospital. Eventually he was diagnosed with a brain tumour which had become active after years in a benign state. Yet more troubling to Rene was the diagnosis of one of Sydney’s top psychiatrists. Rene was found to suffer from bipolar disorder, often referred to as manic depression.
All the wealth and friends and family support could not stop Rene from feeling like a social outcast. The media treated him like some kind of fake, a man who was perfectly ok and was merely acting to avoid serving his time in gaol.
Most people committing suicide to avoid responsibility for their actions do so before they can get caught. Rene had already faced the music. He had enough wealth to live a comfortable life even after the conclusion of his sentence. He had nothing to lose in a material sense. But his mind was playing games with him.
Millions of us who have suffered depression can relate to Rene's decision to take his life. It seems totally irrational. And it is. But when it comes to suicide, there is often a thin line between genius and insanity. And even persons with the biggest hearts, the best minds and the strongest faith can feel the urge to dig their own grave.
Not the First to be Damned
Many prominent people have suffered from mood disorders. Winston Churchill spoke of his "black dog". Spike Milligan must have found it hard to be funny when going through a bout of depression. It's as if one needs to be a genius to get bipolar disorder (also referred to as manic depression).
Yet many other people, prominent and otherwise, also suffer in silence. Why? Because despite all the campaigns and websites and publicity, depression continues to carry a stigma that can destroy a person's professional and personal life.
People still think a mentally ill person is just `crazy', that they cannot function properly, cannot make responsible decisions, cannot hold down a job or build a career.
Worse still, if a person claims mental illness as a factor in their commission of a crime or some other legal wrong, many will quick to point the finger and cough the words "bullshit, bullshit".
When the Rivkin family bravely allowed the national Australian broadcaster ABCTV program `Australian Story' to enter their private life, many were surprised by the revelations that followed. Many more were sceptical about Mrs Rivkin's claims that her husband suffered from bipolar disorder.
But anyone who has suffered from bipolar disorder (or cared for such a person) could have seen the symptoms loud and clear. '
The social stigma associated with mental illness can have tragic results. Thousands of people go about life with undiagnosed depression. Thousands waste their own (or someone else's) hard-earned wealth because of a typical symptom of bipolar disorder. And thousands are too scared to seek help in case they are diagnosed. Many, like Mr Rivkin, choose to take their own life.
The ignorance out there on the community of facilities available to the mentally ill is truly frightening. The lives, reputations and assets of mentally ill people can be protected, but few know how this can be done.
Few people have heard of the Guardianship Tribunal, the Mental Health Review Tribunal, the Protective Commissioner, the Public Guardian or other bodies in NSW that typically involve themselves in decisionmaking on behalf of the mentally ill.
Fewer legal advisers know how such decisions can be reviewed or appealed. I recently spent 6 months working as a Senior Legal Officer at the Office of the Protective Commissioner (OPC). Few private lawyers of OPC clients I spoke to during that time had any idea of how the substitute decision making system operated.
The Next Epidemic
Governments continue to show lack lustre support to the mentally ill, their carers and the facilities that can provide assistance. Yet as funds for mental illness related services are drying up, more Australians are joining the ranks of sufferers. The ranks of this fringe of society are growing rapidly.
We know that as people get older, the chances of them suffering depression are greater. Our ageing population makes mental illness a more common feature of our community.
We also know that recreational drug use can trigger such illnesses. Drug use is not just the practice of young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. It is common parlance to speak of big-firm lawyers and accountants and other young professionals from the big end of town using speed and cocaine. Drug induced depression is a major cause of our country having one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the world.
In short, we are facing an epidemic of mental illness. Unless our governments and policy makers take this epidemic seriously, people will continue to suffer in silence. And unless we as a community change our attitudes to mental illness and treat sufferers with respect and sensitivity, our governments will have little incentive to change their policy priorities.
If even the death of a celebrity like Rene Rivkin cannot increase awareness of mood disorders and save thousands of others from a similar fate, one wonders what will.
© I Yusuf, 2005