Friday, January 17, 2020

Suicide Comes to Hollywood

Apparently, more and more Hollywood celebrities are committing suicide. It is a sad story, one that elicits the usual analysis and the usual remedies. 

The Hollywood Reporter outlines the problem:

In January 2017, 51-year-old U.K.-based locations manager Michael Harm — whose credits included the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise — took his own life in a London hotel room. Shortly before, Harm sent a note to a friend in the industry describing his work as "one of the loneliest jobs on a film," one that came with "no HR," and urged more care on film sets.

In the three years since, a tragic procession of suicides have shaken the film, television and music industries, including those of host and chef Anthony Bourdain, manager Jill Messick, comic Brody Stevens, Soundgarden's Chris Cornell, Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, The Prodigy frontman Keith Flint and DJ Avicii. This year opened with news that Ugly Betty creator Silvio Horta, 45, had taken his own life.

Suicides — often precipitated by mental health struggles — are rising. In 2017, the U.S. rate was 14 per 100,000 people, up 33 percent from 1999. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 35. According to the CDC, the highest female suicide rate from 2012 to 2015 occurred in the combined fields of arts, design, entertainment, sports and media. 

Actually, suicide is rising across America.Whether it is more or less prevent among Hollywood celebrities is not clear. 

As for the mental health struggles, it remains surprising to see that what with the advent of new, more effective antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications, the suicide rate has not fallen. And, dare we mention, the go-to excuse, to the effect that mental illness has been so thoroughly stigmatized that people are afraid to consult psychiatrists, sounds like the kind of mindless cant people trot out to explain the suicide rate. 

In truth, we do nothing but talk about suicide. We do nothing but destigmatize depression. We make it a badge of honor to go to therapy. This is true especially in Hollywood and in the movie industry. If one wanted to be churlish one would suggest that destigmatizing depression has produced more depression. And one might even add that the endless touting of the miracle effects of anti-depressants might even have contributed to the sense of terminal despair. After all, if you have read that these pills are a miracle cure for depression, and if you, upon taking them, still feel profoundly depressed, you might conclude that there is no hope. 

I would mention that many psychoactive drugs are not prescribed by psychiatrists, but by general practitioners. And many are given out without the therapist providing any counseling at all.

Someone should examine this issue.

As for any causes that might be specific to Hollywood, the article begins with these:

Mental-health stressors can be especially intense for younger workers in Hollywood, says UTA board member Tracey Jacobs: "The pressure to perform, coupled with the intense proliferation of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, has affected young people in a way that many of my peers did not experience in their careers. Those factors can be overwhelming and often toxic."

L.A.-based psychotherapist Ira Israel, author of the book How to Survive Your Childhood Now That You’re an Adult, believes that anxiety and depression are especially prevalent in entertainment "because the stakes are so high. The industry attracts highly competitive people who believe they are playing a zero-sum game, and the spoils of war — cars, homes, offices — are excessively conspicuous. The power games and exploitation in Hollywood foment countless afflictions and addictions."

Actually, from another perspective, the stakes are not very high at all. Members of the entertainment industry are in the business of entertaining. They are not soldiers or police officers or fire fighters or even dentists. In few other professions are the stakes as low.

The doctor is saying is that, in Hollywood, there is very little middle ground between outsized success and failure. There seems to be no middle ground. 

Besides, it might be too obvious to state, but we will state it anyone, Hollywood acting, for example, is fundamentally alienating. As Melissa Francis famously said, Hollywood actors make a living pretending to be someone they are not and reciting lines that someone else wrote. That they come away thinking that they are not who they are and that they have interesting things to say is an occupational hazard.

One might also add that jobs in Hollywood are often catch-as-catch-can. There is no job security. People bounce from one opportunity to the other, creating a false camaraderie on set and then scattering to the winds. Social dislocation, i.e., anomie, is the name of the Hollywood game. It does not give people defined roles, a consistent group of people to work with, a daily routine. These are notable suicide risks.

Here is another explanation, which overlaps slightly with my remarks:

Adds Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell School of Medicine and the author of The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius, “Many — particularly young adults — are experiencing anxiety or depression, and Hollywood is filled with many young adults. But there are particular pressures associated with celebrity, or striving for celebrity. There is a constant concern that one won’t get that next opportunity, and fame is very fleeting. There is intense focus on physical appearance, making aging — which is inevitable — the enemy. This focus creates a lot of insecurity. Constant scrutiny, inability to have failures or mistakes be private, vocal judgment by others, feelings of never being enough are all highly stressful, and chronic stress can lead to anxiety or depression.”

In truth, acting does not need to lead to celebrity. Many great performers are not, strictly speaking, celebrities. Meryl Streep is not a celebrity. Her work speaks for her. Idem for Benedict Cumberbatch and Denzel Washington.

Almost by definition, a celebrity gains fame and fortune by occupying tabloid space. But that means, making a blithering fool of oneself in public. The loss of dignity, the absence of a sense of shame, makes Hollywood actors and those who serve them, especially apt to suffer from mental distress. 

Surely, I am in favor of meditation exercises and counseling programs. But, we are not going to solve the problem until Hollywood gets over its fascination with celebrity, until its actors and actresses stop making fools of themselves in public and stop indulging the bad habits that make them tabloid fodder. And begin acting like respectable professionals.


Anonymous said...

Actual "suicides" or high definition pictures?

Anonymous said...

Back in the studio system days, below the line jobs were a lot more secure.