Newspapers and tabloids were flooded last week with stories about the untimely death of Johnson & Johnson heiress, Casey Johnson, 30, whose privileged and wild life followed an old and tragic script: She was born into enormous wealth and advantage, and yet in her early twenties she emerged under the media spotlight looking tired, sometimes angry, and often disturbed.
"I've never actually cut anyone," Johnson told Vanity Fair in 2006 when asked about her involvement in public cat fights. "I've never punched anyone, or thrown anything, or hit anyone... Drama seems to kind of surround me."
As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, it's difficult to see pictures of Casey's face splayed across tabloid pages, to see her life reduced to a handful of unsavory facts, and to know that her death, at least to most casual onlookers, will be mythologized: her death will be blamed on too much wealth, too much privilege, narcissism or vapidity.
Having never met nor treated Casey, I cannot say what was wrong with her, but I do know that her behaviors were symptomatic of a serious psychiatric illness. I have no idea what kind of person Casey was in her intimate relationships, but I can tell you that psychiatric illnesses impair judgment severely, and that sufferers cannot live up to their own or anyone else's moral standards without sustained, professional help.
Getting the needed help is made more difficult for so many kids who suffer from mental disorders because unlike the solidarity presented by families when a child faces cancer, for example, these patients and their families are often at cross purposes. Regardless of the family's income or celebrity, the stigma associated with mental illness encourages denial and inhibits the actions of those who care desperately and sincerely want to help. Childhood psychiatric disorders left untreated don't go away on their own (the way some parents or loved ones secretly wish they would). Too often, ADHD, depression or an anxiety disorder, contribute to a downward spiral that may turn life-threatening in young adulthood.
Millions of young people struggle with unidentified psychiatric disorders. They often self-medicate, and certainly their actions shock us. Casey Johnson shocked us plenty during her lifetime, but I hope her death will bring about more than another wave of character indictments and vitriol about the rich behaving badly.
Here is my proposal: let Casey's death spark empathy and meaningful discussions about undiagnosed psychiatric disorders. Instead of judging Casey or blaming her family's wealth, let's reconsider how we think about mental illness and its sufferers. Mental illness, by definition, is a no-fault brain disorder, its sufferers no more guilty than victims of cancer. When you glimpse Casey's face in the tabloids this week, please remember this one thing.
Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D.
President, The Child Study Center Foundation, Inc.
Director, Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research
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