As a longtime Owen Wilson fan, I was saddened at the news of his recent suicide attempt. Some reports have cited substance abuse, while others reference an ongoing battle with depression. Regardless of what led him there, one thing that has hit me is how this particular situation seems to have inspired so much genuine concern. News about yet another celebrity-in-jeopardy is almost a daily event, to the point where we have become desensitized to it. The media throws them to the wolves, the talk shows rush out the jokes, and if the rest of us have any reaction at all, it's often one of contempt rather than concern. What is it about Owen Wilson that has struck a different chord?
Perhaps it's the fact that something like suicide doesn't seem to fit with his outward image -- the funny, popular young comedy star with the wry smile and laid-back Texas drawl. Combined with his streak of hilarious box-office smashes just doesn't spell "depressed" or "troubled" in our minds. It's always tragic when someone turns to suicide, but when that someone is best known for making us laugh, the news is particularly jarring. I can't help but wonder what the impact of this will be on Wilson's fans, many of them teens and college students. The fact is depression, addiction and other serious mental health issues are much more common among this age group than many people realize, so it's possible Wilson's troubles may make him more relatable to them.
Today, young people are faced with stress that can be brought on by academic pressures, the death of a loved one, divorcing parents, toxic relationships -- even a severe lack of sleep can wreak havoc on their mental state. But when you team that with other serious issues like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, bipolar disorder -- we're entering dangerous territory, especially without treatment. Unfortunately, society encourages us to walk it off, put a smile on our face and "deal," rather than be honest about our emotions. This idea that it's better to act like you're ok than risk being judged as "weak" or "crazy" just because you sought help for a mental health problem, leads many young people to develop unhealthy "external lives" that follow them into adulthood.
For those in the public eye, this "external life" is often taken to the extreme. Many celebs have to hit rock bottom before they will admit they have a problem, and when they finally do get help, it's usually court ordered. To make matters worse, men tend to have even more trouble admitting emotional struggles than women do, so this could also have played a role in Wilson's situation. It's imperative that we stop this stigma and start taking charge of our mental health just as we would our physical health, BEFORE it's too late. We especially need to encourage young people to talk about these issues and deal with them in a productive manner, instead of denying them or feeling ashamed. Shame leads to isolation, which can lead to substance abuse, violence, self-abuse or even suicide. Whenever I speak in front of a group of students, one thing I always impress upon them is that if your EXTERNAL life and your INTERNAL life don't match up, you're going to be facing severe inner conflict -- which is bound to reveal itself in destructive ways. The self-medication with drugs that has been referenced so highly in Wilson's story is exactly the type of behavior that can come out of this conflict.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death on college campuses, and the third leading cause of death among high school students. Anti-depressants are the most common prescription on college campuses, and nationwide. While many may subscribe to the misinformed opinion that suicide is one of "the most selfish things a person can do," it usually doesn't feel that way for those who attempt it. Most who attempt suicide don't actually want to die -- they just have serious emotional problems, and feel they can't handle living the way they're living anymore. Many see suicide as the only way to put a stop to the constant thoughts of death and pain that often accompanies depression. In fact, many may even feel they are a burden to everyone close to them, and suicide will relieve that burden.
It's hard to know what was going through Wilson's mind a week ago Sunday, but there's no question that he's in emotional pain. Thankfully for Wilson and so many of his young fans, there are many resources and treatments available that can help us to successfully manage our mental health. But the earlier we can identify our problems, the better off we will be -- and the key to that is being honest about what we're feeling, and taking action if we're suffering. If we can stop the negative stigma, more people will begin to seek help. Assuming Wilson comes through this a stronger person, he will be an inspiration for so many of his fans. And Lord knows young people today could use a positive celebrity role model.
Facing up to mental health issues should be viewed as a sign of strength, not weakness. I'm so grateful that Wilson didn't end up like so many other funnymen who were taken from us too young -- after years of laughing on the outside, and suffering on the inside. I wish him the best as he begins his journey of recovery. A friend of his recently said that when Wilson is ready, he will be able to speak for himself much better than any of the rest of us could. Owen, your fans will be listening, and what you have to say could stand to help more people than you could possibly imagine.