What We Can Learn From Philip Seymour Hoffman's Death

Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as actor, Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Utah, graphic element on gray
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as actor, Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Utah, graphic element on gray

On Saturday, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in a downtown Manhattan apartment, a hypodermic needle reportedly in his arm and two bags of what was thought to be heroin nearby. He had spoken openly about his addictions in the past, including a recent relapse that had landed him in rehab in the spring of 2013. He was 46 and leaves behind three children and a career at its prime.

The list of celebs who, like Hoffman, checked themselves into rehab in 2013 -- and let the public know about it -- isn't a short one: among them, Josh Brolin, Zac Efron, and perhaps most famously Lindsay Lohan. Illustrating there's no particular "type," others included ABC News co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas, who entered treatment for alcohol addiction in October; Hairspray director Adam Shankman; and former child star Amanda Bynes. Earlier this year, singer Ke$ha announced she'd be entering a center for help with an eating disorder.

Used to be that those battling addictions -- famous or not -- might keep their need for assistance under wraps, quietly entering and exiting centers without anyone knowing. But as the chronicling of celebrity lives becomes ever more vigilant, their adventures in recovery have grown more public. This could be a good thing: Increased exposure and conversation could help remove the lingering stigma surrounding addiction, and treatment of such, helping more people understand that addiction is a serious issue that doesn't discriminate based on income, social standing, looks, or anything else. Certainly, celebrities raise the profile not only of the specific institution they attend but the idea of recovery in general.

On the other hand, the Hollywood promotion of addiction treatment could in some cases serve to normalize, possibly even glamorize, the idea of living to excess, and maybe excuse the reckless behavior that often lands celebrities in rehab in the first place. Rehab can be used as a mea culpa, for the famous and the non-famous: a way to make amends or smooth over a situation while also earning praise for "dealing with their demons." Efron reportedly admitted himself after failing to show up for work filming his upcoming movie, Neighbors. R&B singer Chris Brown entered rehab for anger management in October after reportedly punching a man in the face. Going to rehab can work to take a bit of the heat off. In some instances, there seem to be few lasting consequences for those who overuse alcohol and drugs, or mismanage anger, in their professional lives: Such recovering addicts as Robert Downey Jr., Drew Barrymore, and Robin Williams have maintained glorious careers, and, well, people keep buying Chris Brown's music. That's not always the case -- the second chance (or third, or fourth) -- for regular people, as tragedies like Hoffman's death illustrate. The ending isn't always happy. But until an event like this happens, it can be easy to think otherwise.

In fact, how seriously celebrities take rehab may impact how seriously "regular" people do as well. Celebrities who go in and out of rehab may be struggling privately, but the message the public receives in those cases -- enough details to know that a celebrity is back in a program, but not enough to know why -- is too often that rehab is a place to go whenever you feel the need to get away for a bit. Brown, for example, stayed only two weeks. For those celebrities who aren't facing real addictions or looking to make real change -- but instead seeking a quick and easy way to apologize, or perhaps a spike in media attention -- the message gets muddled.

Certainly, for many celebrities, revealing a trip to recovery is more of a necessity than a desire to be "open and honest" with the rest of the world. It's generally better to be the one to tell the story than have it told for you. Still, the motivation for telling the story, and for entering recovery, matters, as does evidence of a real drive to get well. It shouldn't take a tragedy like the death of a young actor to reinforce the real danger in addiction for everyone, famous or not.