With suicide being the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, has it become an acceptable resolve for the disease of addiction and depression? Nearly 37,000 people die every year from this tragedy and it seems people have become desensitized unless it relates to a celebrity personality; even then the reaction is short-lived. Far too often suicide is the culmination of addiction and depression, as a society the stigma around both needs to be removed so victims can get the help they need to save their lives.
Suicide is a tragic experience, not just for the victims, but for those they leave behind struggling to understand what went wrong and what they could have done to prevent it. Many people who have never experienced addiction or severe depression are often very critical of the individual and the choice they made. The reality is anyone who would consider taking their own life has found themselves in a place where they feel there is no other viable choice. Suicide is an act of desperation where the victim feels no options exist and a win is far from possible.
In the wake of the most recent celebrity suicide tragedy involving 25-year-old Simone Battle I am reminded of a conversation I had when interviewing Jason Wahler, reality star from MTV’s Laguna Beach, The Hills and Dr. Drew’s Celebrity Rehab. At the time of the interview the world was upset and in a state of shock surrounding the suicide of comedian Robin Williams.
Jason, who not only knew Robin well, has also faced his own season of drug addiction and depression. He found stardom through reality television and as a result was forced to struggle publicly which ultimately led to his own attempt at suicide. Jason, who has now been sober for four years, said when speaking of his own experience:
I was so uncomfortable in my own skin that I contemplated suicide a number of times, and even attempted it once. I took an excessive amount of a drug called Antabuse, a popular drug that helps alcoholics abstain from drinking, after drinking a fifth of vodka in an effort to take my own life. I should be dead but someone found me. My life was saved only after being rushed to the hospital and receiving treatment for my overdose.
According to Jason, the flame of addiction was fueled by his reality TV background. The star said he was in the fight for his life but did not even realize it. His run-ins with the law and other mistakes he made were always magnified because of the time he spent on Laguna Beach and The Hills. Jason never blamed the hit television shows for his addiction but said the fame, cash and overnight success ignited his addiction and caused it to expand much faster. People began calling him the non-stop party guy from Orange County when he was really just like any other addict who was humiliated by a life that had spiraled out of control.
Jason is grateful that he escaped suicide but said he will never forget the experiences which nearly led to his death. In efforts to help stop this vicious cycle Jason has dedicated his life to helping individuals who suffer from addiction get the treatment they need to overcome. Although not too long ago he found himself on the same slippery slope of hopeless, Jason is now working as a Treatment and Recovery Advocate at Northbound Treatment Center.
When speaking of substance abuse treatment Jason stated, “The 30-day treatment model which has become so popular today is insufficient for the 21st century.” People need long-term treatment, step-down levels of care including the integration of real life so they are equipped to deal with the challenges of everyday life. He added, “Going away somewhere for 30 days only to go right back home, into the same environment, does not help.” Jason wanted to make it clear that he is not speaking negatively of the treatment itself , but said it is important to remember back in the day when this method of treatment was instituted there was less accessibility and less publicity. In times past when people went off to a 30 day program, they were there without the entire outside world that follows people today with the integration of social media and online windows.
In today’s society things are so fast paced and there is so much going on, 30 days is just the starting point. What people can currently do in a day, took two weeks to accomplish a decade ago. As with all things, it is not that the model was not good, these are just different times coupled with a host of other challenges. .
The Hills star said of course recovery helped him but what he really benefited from most was having people he could relate to, those who had gone through similar experiences. The privilege of being able to talk to people like Dr. Drew and others formed a connection that Jason would not have received had they not been able to empathize with his illness. Addicts need more than sympathy to conquer their illness, they need a lifeline.
This is why I do what I do and love what I do. My experiences allow me to connect with people so easily and the lifeline they need to help them believe victory is possible. Personal experience is paramount.
According to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) nearly 50 percent of people who are dealing with a mental health issue are also victims of substance abuse. This is primarily due to the negative stigma associated with mental illness. The stigma pressures people to self medicate instead of getting the necessary help for their true condition.
We live in a world where it is taboo to admit mental health issues or addiction. Therefore, victims do not talk about it. They feel forced to suffer in silence trying to manage what cannot be managed on their own. Society impresses upon them that this is their choice and instead of getting them help they sit back and become their judge.
Jason said it is these kinds of beliefs that drive him to continuously raise awareness about addiction and mental illness. He understands the reality of these diseases and knows they are not choices. Although Jason is not a therapist or doctor, he has suffered from these illnesses and has done the work to overcome. When speaking candidly about both he said:
Not only have I experienced this myself but I have looked at brain scans of addicts and the mentally ill and have read the research. No one should ever be made to feel that they cannot reach out for help when they need it, because that help is right around the corner.
It was not an easy battle for Jason and he credits a great deal of his success at remaining clean to his lovely new wife, Ashley. He is not who he was at 19 and embraces his sobriety and remains committed to staying clean. In closing Jason said, “In order for people to get the help they need society must change the way it views suicide and mental illness.” It should not be addressed as a negative stigma; instead it must be understood as a disease that is manageable when properly treated.
Interview by: Cherese Jackson (Virginia)