Charlie Sheen and the national conversation about mental health

Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide.
by Elana Premack Sandler, L.C.S.W., M.P.H.

Charlie Sheen and the national conversation about mental health

Why talking about addiction might make things better
Published on March 9, 2011
I really didn't want to write about Charlie Sheen. As his life has been given more media coverage than the Middle East, I figured I really didn't have anything to add.

But throughout this seemingly-incessant coverage, I've thought a lot about Charlie Sheen. I was one of those people who initially watched Two and a Half Men with a lot of skepticism, thinking, 'Is it actually funny?' until the day that I gave in and realized, yes, it's actually funny.

Still, I struggled with what I found funny. It's not funny that Charlie Sheen has an addiction that has virtually ruined his life and the lives of others. It's not funny that Charlie Harper, the character Sheen plays, is an only-slightly less disturbing version of the real-life Charlie Sheen. It's really not funny that a lot of money that could go to help people with addiction goes to producing a show that, at its core, is funny because of a man with a serious problem.

Once again, Laurie Flynn at TeenScreen, the National Center for Mental Health Checkups at Columbia University, has hit the proverbial nail on the head with her blog post this week. She gives voice to Martin Sheen, Charlie's father, and his call for recognition and de-stigmatization of his son's illness.

Seeing what Flynn wrote reinforced that Charlie Sheen's mental health is worth discussing, even though doing so might add to the sensationalism. But it was my yoga instructor who said something that really made me want to write about Charlie Sheen.

We were all splayed across the floor of the studio, moving into or out of some relatively uncomfortable position, when he said something along the lines of, "If you feel pain, that is a good thing. It tells you something isn't right."

He went on: "If you want an example of someone who is incapable of feeling pain, take Charlie Sheen. He's done everything possible to mask the pain that he feels."

If Charlie Sheen can make it into yoga class, he can make it into a national conversation about mental health.

Addiction is often a way of masking pain. Addiction, perhaps not surprisingly, is also connected to suicide risk. Suicide is all about pain and the desire to end one's pain. From a prevention perspective, awareness of our pain, knowing something's wrong, is a first step in making things better.