A Lasting Legacy: Carrie Fisher’s Mental Health Advocacy

On Dec. 27, 2016, Hollywood lost one of its iconic stars in Carrie Fisher.

The former “Star Wars” actress suffered a heart attack on Dec. 23, 2016, while aboard a Los Angeles-bound flight. A medic onboard performed CPR before paramedics arrived and transferred her to UCLA Medical Center, where she was placed on a ventilator.

Fisher died the following week. She was 60.

“She was extremely smart; a talented actress, writer and comedienne with a very colorful personality that everyone loved,” George Lucas, “Star Wars” creator, said in a statement.

Fisher was well-known for her role as Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” series. But off the big screen, many recognized Fisher for her mental health advocacy.

She battled numerous demons throughout her life, including bipolar disorder, alcoholism, drug addiction and body dysmorphic disorder. She never hid these problems. Instead, she was outspoken about them.

“I am mentally ill. I can say that. I am not ashamed of that,” she told ABC News in 2000. “I survived that, I’m still surviving it, but bring it on. Better me than you.”

She dedicated much of her life shedding light on bipolar disorder, fighting misconceptions surrounding mental illness and offering advice to those with co-occurring disorders the only way she knew how: with unabashed honesty and wit.

Fisher’s Battle with Addiction

Fisher was born on Oct. 21, 1956. She was the daughter of singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds.

At age 15, Fisher debuted on Broadway, sharing the stage with Reynolds in “Irene.” Fisher made her film debut in “Shampoo” in 1975. Two years later, she became a household name when “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope” was released.

In the 1980s, Fisher’s struggles with addiction and depression began. She used cocaine on the set of “The Empire Strikes Back.” By the time “Return of the Jedi” was released, she was heavily using sleeping pills.

Fisher’s substance abuse was evident to those around her. Actor John Belushi, who died of a drug overdose in 1982, once told Fisher that she had drug problem. She slowly began to realize that she was doing more drugs than those around her.

Doctors told a 24-year-old Fisher that she had a mental illness. She didn’t believe them.

“I thought they told me I was manic depressive to make me feel better about being a drug addict,” Fisher said.

Fisher didn’t accept this reality until she experienced a near-fatal overdose four years later. The event caused her to seek treatment for addiction and mental illness. She also began attending 12-step meetings, where she found comfort in listening to the stories of others in similar situations.

After treatment, she relapsed multiple times.

In 1987, Fisher released “Postcards From the Edge,” a semi-autobiographical novel about an actress recovering from a drug overdose.

Fisher spoke about her struggles with addiction and mental illness in the 2006 biographical play, “Wishful Drinking.” The story became a memoir in 2009 and then a documentary in 2010.

In the memoir, Fisher wrote about the challenges of bipolar disorder, noting how living with mental illness requires stamina and courage, and encouraged others to be proud of their own resilience.

‘Princess Leia is Bipolar Too’

Fisher’s mental health advocacy has been recognized by those in the field and beyond.

In 2001, the National Alliance on Mental Illness bestowed Fisher with its Rona and Ken Purdy Award for her efforts in helping end mental health discrimination and stigma.

Harvard University in 2016 presented Fisher with its Annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism. The recognition honors those whose contributions to popular culture and society exemplify compassion, creativity and honesty, among other values.

Fisher received the award for her activism and outspokenness about addiction and mental illness.

Upon accepting the honor on April 16, 2016, at Harvard’s Memorial Church, Fisher spoke openly about her battles with addiction and bipolar disorder. She also said that she has received words of encouragement for her advocacy.

“Many people thank me for talking about it, and mothers can tell their kids when they are upset with the diagnosis that Princess Leia is bipolar too,” she said, per the Harvard Gazette.

In addition to medication, Fisher coped with bipolar disorder with a sense of humor. Her candor and openness about her life struggles will likely be remembered and admired long after her death.