Carrie Fisher, 'Star Wars' Actress and Outspoken Mental Health Awareness Icon, Dead at 60

By Keri Blakinger 12/28/16

While the actress was famously known for her role as Princess Leia, she was also a beacon of hope for those living with mental illness. 

Carrie Fisher

Carrie Fisher, the blockbuster actress known for her role as Star Wars royalty and her willingness to publicly confront her own mental health and addiction struggles, passed away Tuesday morning. She was 60.

Days before her death, the actress—synonymous with her part as the indomitable two-bunned Princess Leia—had a heart attack on a plane to Los Angeles. She was hospitalized in California over the weekend and died at 8:55am Tuesday, a family spokesman told the New York Times.

Born in Beverly Hills to celebs Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, she became an overnight sensation for her strong starring role in George Lucas’s epic space saga Star Wars

She was cast in the role at 19, but along with the strain of celebrity, Fisher struggled with substance abuse issues and mental illness. 

At 29, she was diagnosed as bipolar—but she didn’t suffer in silence. Instead, she sought to bring light to the stigma surrounding mental illness by speaking publicly about her own struggles. 

“I used to think I was a drug addict, pure and simple—just someone who could not stop taking drugs willfully,” she told ABC News more than 20 years ago. “And I was that. But it turns out that I am severely manic depressive.”

In the brutally honest interview with Diane Sawyer, she talked about her emotional ups and downs and the sometimes reckless behavior that went with it. “I am mentally ill. I can say that. I am not ashamed of that. I survived that, I’m still surviving it, but bring it on,” she said.

Over the years, Fisher struggled with over-using sleeping pills, abusing Percodan and doing cocaine. At one point, she shocked Star Wars fans by admitting she’d even snorted the white stuff on the set of The Empire Strikes Back, as The Guardian reported in 2010. “I didn’t even like coke that much. It was just a case of getting on whatever train I needed to take to get high,” she said.

After a divorce from singer Paul Simon and a "psychotic break" that landed her in the hospital, turning away from drugs and toward psychiatric treatment eventually helped Fisher find a happy medium.

At one point, she made the stuff of her own struggles—addiction and mental health—into a semi-autobiographical novel titled Postcards from the Edge. It was adapted into a 1990 film starring Meryl Streep.

During the rough 2016 campaign season, Fisher made her erstwhile drug use part of a public joke targeting Donald Trump. After an October presidential debate she fired off a tongue-in-cheek tweet claiming she was an “expert” and the real estate mogul was “absolutely” a coke head, in light of his constant on-stage sniffling. 

Her passing comes on the heels of another loss this holiday season, the Christmas Day death of '80s singer George Michael, who also struggled with substance use. 

While Michael’s drug history was marked by a string of arrests, Fisher’s substance problem was public, in part, because she was so willing to talk about it. By the time of her death, she’d become an icon for mental health awareness and recovery.

As news of the star’s demise began circulating early Tuesday, Hollywood royalty took to Twitter and Facebook to mourn the outspoken celeb’s passing. “No words. #Devastated,” tweeted fellow Star Wars alum Mark Hamill.

“Thank you to everyone who has embraced the gifts and talents of my beloved and amazing daughter,” Fisher’s mother wrote on Facebook. “I am grateful for your thoughts and prayers that are now guiding her to her next stop.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.