Another Celebrity Comes Out About Mental Illness: David Letterman’s Courage

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Getting help for depression is a strength

Recently, I watched long-time late night TV host and 2012 Kennedy Center Honoree David Letterman in two personal interviews – one with noted journalist Charlie Rose (on PBS), and the other with the infamous Oprah Winfrey.  It was information from the latter which sparked this item.

What did David Letterman tell Oprah that he didn’t tell Charlie?  I would use the word ‘confided’ but knowing Oprah’s audience reach, ‘confided’ doesn’t work.  What Letterman did was own up to the fact that he sees a psychiatrist on a regular basis.  I was not only surprised by this admission, but also by the matter-of-fact way it was delivered.  Right away that struck me as courageous, due to the unfortunate stigma and associated shame of mental illness, a term I find highly inappropriate, insufficient and misleading, given the myriad of issues it purportedly represents.

Letterman introduced the topic while discussing the many sexual affairs he had while involved in a long-term relationship with Regina, his live-in-girlfriend-now-wife.  He seemed acutely aware of and baffled by the conflict between his former perceptions of himself as a ‘good’ person and the apparent inconsistency between this positive self-notion and his actual behavior.  He told Oprah of his reluctance to forgive himself.

Therapy can serve the purpose of understanding oneself and one’s behavior in the context of a moral dilemma

I had initially attributed this focus on morality to Letterman’s mid-western (Indiana) upbringing, and to the fact that his mother had been a church secretary.  But then I was reminded that therapy can serve the purpose of understanding oneself and one’s behavior in the context of a moral dilemma – a role which is not the usual focus of my therapy practice, but which naturally fits when a holistic approach to self-healing is applied.

Later on in the interview, Letterman told Oprah he had suffered from severe depression, which is another reason he sought psychiatric help, and one more commonly associated with therapy.  Other well-known personalities have spoken out about their or a family member’s struggle with some type of ‘mental illness’ in order to help lift the stigma, and each time, I think ‘good for them!’ But of course, celebrities can get away with stigma-related revelations.  So what if people think they’re crazy, so what if the public judges them – they are in show business, where being judged is a major part of the game.

Celebrities can get away with stigma-related revelations.  So what if people think they’re crazy, so what if the public judges them – they are in show business, where being judged is a major part of the game.

Not so easy for others to speak up or speak out.  Seeing a psychotherapist is usually a very private and personal business, one that is not often shared with others (including close family and/or friends).  When I see my clients recover, when I see them make changes and live fuller, more satisfying lives, and when I hear from them how they have used the support and learning derived from therapy to heal themselves, I know it would be rare for this information to be broadcast and/or celebrated publicly in the same way that healing from a non-stigmatized physical ailment would.

… the emotional components, the spiritual aspects, and yes, our moral dilemmas and struggles in a changing world are rarely top-of-mind when the term ‘mental illness’ is applied.

I think about the term ‘mental illness’ and how it represents, for me, the unfortunate split between body and mind still so prevalent in our society.  As a holistic practitioner, I do not see such a split.  While the scientific community is coming to recognize the link between physical (somatic) ailments and our mental attitudes, ideas and beliefs (albeit all too slowly), the emotional components, the spiritual aspects, and yes, our moral dilemmas and struggles in a changing world are rarely top-of-mind when the term ‘mental illness’ is applied.

Practitioners of the mind-body binary persuasion would probably slot Letterman’s moral conflict into the ‘mental’ aspect, since it involves, in part, his belief system.  But that would leave out the spiritual component, the physiological toll of the stress involved in betraying his belief system (he had quadruple bypass surgery, also discussed by both Oprah and Charlie), and his emotions (e.g., his anger at himself for behaving in this way), to name a few.

I applaud Letterman for being so forthcoming and honest in the public sphere.  Whether or not you like him (I do), whether or not you appreciate his brand of comedy (I do), the Kennedy Center Honors confirm his influence on millions of people.  Here’s hoping that some who watched Letterman and Oprah are inspired to reach out with their own courage to get the help they need.

 

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