‘True Blood’ Actor Nelsan Ellis Died of Complications from Alcohol Withdrawal

Photo by: Kristin Dos Santos from Los Angeles, CA

Actor Nelsan Ellis, who portrayed Lafayette Reynolds on HBO’s vampire series “True Blood,” died on July 8 of heart failure caused by alcohol withdrawal. His death was confirmed by family in a statement to the Hollywood Reporter. Ellis was 39 years old.

Emily Gerson Saines, Ellis’ manager, said that the actor had long battled drug and alcohol addiction prior to his death. In fact, he had sought treatment many times.

“According to his father, during his withdrawal from alcohol, he had a blood infection, his kidneys shut down, his liver was swollen, his blood pressure plummeted and his dear sweet heart raced out of control,” the statement read.

The actor’s family said Ellis was ashamed of his disease. But they believe that he would want his death to be used to encourage people battling addiction to seek assistance.

Ellis Appeared in ‘The Help’ and ‘Secretariat’

Ellis was born in Harvey, Illinois, in 1978. After relocating to Bessemer, Alabama, Ellis’ family moved back to Illinois when he was 14. His love for acting grew in high school after he portrayed the character Junie in the play “The Colored Museum.”

After a brief stint in the U.S. Marines, Ellis studied drama at the Juilliard School in New York City. During this time, he wrote “Ugly,” a stage production about domestic violence. Seven years later, he made his TV debut in “Warm Springs.”

He completed small roles in the TV shows “The Inside” and “Veronica Mars” before being cast in “True Blood,” which ran from 2008 to 2014.

Ellis also appeared in a number of movies, including “Secretariat,” “The Help,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Get On Up” and “The Stanford Prison Experiment.”

Upon news of his death, Ellis’ “True Blood” co-stars expressed their condolences on social media. Joe Manganiello said that Ellis was a one-of-a-kind artist. Stephen Moyer called him brilliant, charismatic and intelligent. Anna Paquin said that Ellis was a deeply kind soul.

Alcohol Detox Without Medical Supervision Is Dangerous

As Ellis’ death showed, detoxing from alcohol without the supervision of a medical professional can be dangerous. Withdrawal symptoms can be severe, and individuals may not know how to properly manage them.

Common alcohol withdrawal symptoms include irritability, depression, fatigue, anxiety and mood swings. Severe effects include hallucinations, fever, agitation, severe confusion and seizures.

Delirium tremens, a severe form of alcohol withdrawal, can also occur during alcohol detox. This group of symptoms may include body tremors, severe and sudden confusion, hallucinations and restlessness. Delirium tremens commonly manifests within two to four days of the last drink.

“I would definitely not advise for anyone to [get off alcohol] on their own,” William Stanley, medical director of Serenity at Summit Behavioral Health, told USA Today.

The effects of withdrawal can be painful, and managing them can be difficult. Cyndie Dunkerson, clinical supervisor for the rehab center Hope by the Sea, told NBC News that alcohol is the only drug that can cause death during detox.

Rehab facilities can properly manage withdrawal symptoms. During detox, medical professionals may monitor a client’s heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure and levels of numerous body chemicals. They may also administer benzodiazepines, a line of drugs that are effective in preventing severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Stigma Creates Shame and Fear

Ellis’ family said that he was reluctant to talk about his struggles with drug and alcohol addiction. Many people experiencing a substance use disorder do not speak about their problems because of the stigma surrounding addiction. Negative beliefs surrounding the disease have caused countless individuals to avoid seeking treatment.

In 2014, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health released a report stating that Americans are more likely to have negative attitudes toward people with drug addiction than they are toward individuals with mental disorders.

The study, published in the journal Psychiatric Services, surveyed 709 people about their opinions of those with mental illness or drug addiction. Twenty-two percent of participants said that they would work closely with someone who has a substance use disorder, and 62 percent of respondents said they would work with someone with mental illness.

Because of stigma, many people hide their substance use disorders, and they are afraid to get help. They may begin to believe that addiction is their own fault. However, concealing substance abuse problems can have medical and social consequences.

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