Las Vegas Sun

July 28, 2016

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Mental health, drug issues have ruined artists’ lives

My mother saw Elvis Presley in Las Vegas in the early 1960s. The King of Rock ’n’ Roll and his signature gyrating pelvis left a great impression on her and the rest of the world, and inadvertently, me. As I grew up, she’d put on a scratchy Elvis record while she made dinner, singing along and dancing. Although I never saw him perform, his booming voice filled our house as if we were right there with him on the Las Vegas Strip.

What would the world be without the late King and his music? How many other artists and their Las Vegas performances have changed lives forever? The Strip boasts some of the world’s greatest entertainers, the likes of England’s Elton John and Canada’s Celine Dion. But many of them die too young, from mental health and addiction issues.

I struggled with my own mental health issues in my 20s when I lived in Moscow. When I felt blue I’d go to any live performance I could: theater, classical and modern ballet, opera, concerts. I found the shows soothing. I saw Paul McCartney in concert on Red Square. I scored a job that allowed me to see the shows for free by covering celebrities for a newspaper, and interviewed dozens of touring performers, such as Sylvester Stallone and David Copperfield.

Although there were some great moments — my favorite was an interview with Italian designer Valentino — it wasn’t always as fun as it sounded. The artists took over hotels, accompanied by dozens of managers who toured the world with them. I could never figure out what they all did, and why it took so many people to manage the daily life of one person, but I learned quickly that the key to a good interview was catching the subject when he or she was in a good mood.

It wasn’t always easy. I often met them backstage, where they could be difficult. But onstage, they metamorphosed into smiling, dazzling entertainers with perfect moves and big, bright smiles.

Back in Russia, home to many poets, writers and musicians, they have a name for talented people’s mental health woes. It isn’t depression, or bipolar disorder. They simply call it the “artist’s disease,” an expected affliction of the artistic temperament. They accept it. Artists, they say, are supposed to be moody, temperamental and unpredictable, and die young from alcoholism. That’s just the way they are.

I was lucky. I had a mother who loved to dance to rock and roll, and who described her trip to Las Vegas to see Elvis many times over. At a time when most of my peers were listening to the hits of the 1980s, I was singing along to “Blue Suede Shoes” and learning to dance the jitterbug in the kitchen. Those were fun times.

Recently we were reminded of Elvis’ fatal turn of events — only this time it was his personal doctor, George Nichopoulos, or Dr. Nick, who passed away. He was indicted in 1980 on 14 counts of overprescribing drugs to Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and 12 others.

Elvis wasn’t the only one of America’s most talented artists who died too young by their own doing and/or with the help of an unethical physician. So many other entertainment greats have lost their battles with depression, alcohol and drugs, including Whitney Houston, John Belushi, Kurt Cobain, Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix, Judy Garland, Michael Jackson and Janis Joplin. I admit, I don’t understand addictions much, and I always wonder why many famous artists end up dead when they are wealthy enough to get the help they need. I guess that’s why it’s called an addiction. They can’t stop.

I just wish the entertainers who bring us such pleasure were able to get the help they need, that the entertainment industry made it a priority to publicly address mental health issues and combat stigma, or that their entourages would step in and be real friends by finding them help. I wish their smiles onstage were always genuine.

Kim Palchikoff is studying social work at UNR and writes about mental health.

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