Earlier this week, news broke that Carrie Fisher had suffered a heart attack while on a flight from London to LA. On December 27, she died at just 60 years old, leaving behind a legacy unlike no other.
Whether you knew of Carrie Fisher from her movie roles in films such as "Star Wars" and "When Harry Met Sally," or whether you knew about her successful writing career, penning five novels and three memoirs, it's safe to say she has had a very successful career.
She also had an important career advocating for mental health. She would candidly talk about her struggles, in particular her mental illness and bipolar disorder -- topics which still remain taboo today.
Many people will look back at her successful career in movies and quite rightly so too. However, it's important to also look back at some of the things she's done to help raise awareness of mental health. In fact, her career is defined on her official website in five words: Actor, author, mental health advocate.
She was open about her struggles
Carrie Fisher did something that not many people -- whether famous or not -- can do. She talked openly about her struggles with mental illness.
Making the topic seem normal and something which shouldn't be kept in the dark will not only have helped people become aware that they may be suffering something similar, but also help towards breaking down the stigma behind the illness.
She won awards for her advocacy
In 2002, she was honored with the Erasing the Stigma award for "speaking the truth about mental illness," and providing a path for others with mental illness to follow.
Only just this year, Fisher was still being recognized for her advocacy.
In April, she was awarded the Annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism from Harvard College for "her forthright activism and outspokenness about addiction, mental illness and agnosticism have advanced public discourse on these issues with creativity and empathy."
Sarah Chandonnet, program director of the Humanist Hub at Harvard, said Fisher was nominated because of her efforts to de-stigmatize mental illness and because "she is a compassionate, funny, deeply flawed, deeply brave, slightly inappropriate, big-hearted, bipolar human.”
Upon accepting the award, Carrie said:
“I've never been ashamed of my mental illness; it never occurred to me. 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.”
Her raw and honest approach to tackling something deemed as taboo to others has been commendable and helped others to see mental illness in a new light.
She defined her disorder before it could define her
During an interview with WebMD, she was asked about whether it was unsettling or empowering to be seen as the poster child for bipolar disorder.
"Well, I am hoping to get the centerfold in Psychology Today. It's a combination of everything. It was out there, anyway; I wanted my version of it out there. Now, it seems every show I watch there's always someone bipolar in it! It's going through the vernacular like "May the force be with you" did. But I define it, rather than it defining me."
Carrie Fisher showed that you could talk about mental illness candidly, and not treat it like the big black dog it wants you to. She showed that by actively looking for ways to not let it disrupt her life, it wouldn't define her.
She offered her pearls of wisdom
Just recently, Carrie had become an "agony aunt" for The Guardian. In her last column, she was asked by a reader about how to tackle bipolar disorder head on.
Her advice was simple:
"We have been given a challenging illness, and there is no other option than to meet those challenges. Think of it as an opportunity to be heroic – not “I survived living in Mosul during an attack” heroic, but an emotional survival. An opportunity to be a good example to others who might share our disorder. That's why it's important to find a community – however small – of other bipolar people to share experiences and find comfort in the similarities."
Her advice served as a new alternative to those suffering with mental illness: Be heroic and take the challenge on.
De-stigmatizing mental illness
If we want to honor Carrie Fisher's legacy, let's work to destigmatize mental illness in ways both big and small. It's up to us. ❤️ — JuanPa (@jpbrammer) December 27, 2016
Carrie Fisher has taught us the importance of being open and honest about mental illness. By doing so, we can work together to de-stigmatize the bad rep that mental illness has.
The more we talk about it and refuse to keep it hidden away, the easier it will be for people to seek out help and fight their inner demons.
As Carrie Fisher once said:
"You're only as sick as your secrets. If it is a secret -- anything that makes you sort of shame-based -- if you can claim it, it has a lot less power over you."