June 27, 2019 | 84° F

COUTO: Princess Leia taught me about mental health

Opinions Column: Through the Looking Glass

It’s Dec. 27, 2016. The time is 1:25 p.m. I’m spending the day at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida. I hold up my phone to capture an image of the Star Wars Launch Bay area, but am interrupted by a pop-up on the screen that reads, "Breaking News." My curiosity gets the better of me — I hastily exit camera mode, open the news app and wait for the articles to load, biting my lip in anticipation. After what feels like the longest 60 seconds of my life, letters and images filter onto the screen so abruptly and simultaneously that my eyes need a moment to adjust to the information overflow. When I can finally make sense of the words staring back at me, boy do I wish I hadn’t looked. The wind was knocked out of me so intensely, I may as well have been riding the Tower of Terror. Variants of the same headline impound my screen: “Carrie Fisher, Dead at 60.” I didn’t think 2016 could get any worse, but clearly it had one more dirty trick up its wicked sleeve. Later I would be proved wrong once again, when Fisher’s mother and iconic Hollywood star, Debbie Reynolds, was also pronounced dead the very next day.

As a millennial, I grew up with parents who were avid fans of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, which first premiered in 1977. I watched the movies as a kid mostly to appease my parents, but with its outdated special effects, my 7-year-old self was ultimately unimpressed. It wasn’t until 2015, when “The Force Awakens” was released, that I began to understand the hype surrounding this band of space rebels, and thus proceeded to binge watch the entire saga in the span of 24 hours — I wouldn’t recommend it. It was then, on that foggy Saturday evening, as the empty bags of popcorn began piling up around me, that I finally understood why women of all ages (and even a few men — but that’s a topic for another day) were obsessed with Princess Leia. Here is this headstrong, badass woman who can shoot laser guns, kill evil space-slugs, outsmart Storm Troopers and isn’t afraid to stand up to her enemies — all while sporting the coolest intergalactic hairstyle. I mean, what’s not to like? Hence, with my new-found fascination suddenly ignited, I began to search for information about the woman behind this iconic character, the idol to girls and women everywhere who proudly and enthusiastically replicated Leia’s signature hair buns — or as I like to call them: Extra large cinnamon rolls — no matter how much it made them look like Dutch milkmaids. As I combed through the result pages of my Google search, what I found was unexpected: Carrie Fisher/ Princess Leia — the two are so bound together, they go hand-in-hand — was not only diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 24, but she had also been fighting an alcohol and drug addiction for her entire adult life.

My initial reaction was, predictably, something along the lines of: “Well, here is just another celebrity who couldn’t handle the pressures of life in the spotlight.” But once I discovered and read, or rather, devoured, Fisher’s collection of memoirs, "The Princess Diarist, Wishful Drinking and Shockaholic," I realized that I couldn’t have been more wrong. While Fisher did qualify as the stereotypical celebrity who had succumbed to the negative effects of Hollywood, she actively engaged in something not many in her position were willing to do: Openly talk about her personal struggles. Mental illness is, unfortunately, considered a taboo in our worldwide culture. So to have someone like Fisher who, by the way, was also an advocate for gender equality, raise awareness was extremely refreshing. I think it’s safe to say that, as college students, anxiety and depression are no strangers to us. Therefore, I can appreciate it when people who are in the unique position to reach large audiences effectively use their platform to discuss mental health, thereby working to de-stigmatize such a shared experience.  Due to the present physical, emotional and psychological turmoil this country is currently experiencing, it is essential that we create an open dialogue about how these events affect us mentally, alas we crumble under the weight of such stressors. So in honor of the late Princess Leia, let’s make it OK to publicly discuss mental illness, if not for any other reason than simply because "it’s freeing to do” because “shame is not something (we should) aspire to.

Ana Couto is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year majoring in English and journalism and media studies. Her column, "Through the Looking Glass," runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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Ana Couto

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