Charlie Sheen's apparent public meltdown has all the elements of a made-for-TV drama that has riveted millions and that could, ironically, provide a healthy diversion for some people, at least one expert contends.
While the actor's recent antics, which got him fired Monday from the CBS hit show Two and a Half Men, may be symptomatic of a mental health crisis, Beverly Flaxington, author of the book Understanding Other People: The Five Secrets to Human Behavior, said watching Sheen's personal and professional unraveling has been somewhat of a respite for many people from the recession, the upheaval in the Middle East, family pressures and other sources of stress.
"Most news in recent months hasn't been great, and this is a distraction that people can focus on without having it affect them personally," Flaxington said.
Watching Sheen's behaviour can make people reflect positively on their own lives, said Flaxington, a personal and career coach based in Medfield, Mass. "It has many of us thinking, 'I have challenges in my life, but unlike him, I'm holding it together,' " she said.
"We can feel pretty good about ourselves," she added.
Do you see yourself in Charlie Sheen?
Sheen, reportedly drunk and naked, apparently trashed a hotel room at The Plaza hotel in New York City last year. Then last month, his longtime publicist quit amid the tabloid-fodder turmoil. And last week, the highly paid actor (reportedly $2 million per episode of the show) was hit with a restraining order to stay away from his estranged wife and twin toddlers.
Some people enjoy the "mighty have fallen" aspects of Sheen's behaviour, Flaxington said. "But there's also a little bit of his behaviour that we all connect to," she added. "Don't we all wish we had enough money to tell our bosses off?"
"We're all capable of doings things we're not proud of," Flaxington said. "He has us wondering, 'Under enough stress, could I get to that point?' "
Others see Sheen's exploits as signs of serious psychiatric or substance use issues.
"What's pretty clear is something is going on, and it's probably not just the inappropriate acting out of a celebrity," said Jeffrey Parsons, a psychology professor at Hunter College in New York City and an addiction specialist.
"It could be, as some have suggested, an indication of bipolar disorder," said Parsons, citing the uncontrolled commentary, impulsivity, property damage and sexual acting-out attributed to Sheen in news reports.
"Or we could be seeing the long-term effects of substance abuse, which he has talked about," Parsons said. "Although he is testing clean now, it doesn't negate the kind of long-term psychological and brain effects of cocaine abuse."
Bruce Goldman, an addiction specialist at Zucker Hillside Hospital in West Hempstead, NY, has similar thoughts.
"When you see irrational behaviour, inconsistencies, changes in mood and other symptoms, it could be a symptom of addiction or a serious psychiatric condition - or both," said Goldman, a licenced social worker.
'Sooner treatment begins the better'
The first step would be a thorough evaluation, he said.
Because Sheen has reportedly denied any emotional or substance problems, getting him into treatment could be difficult, Parsons said. Someone with that apparent degree of denial and resistance "will need therapy to build trust and meet him where he is," he noted.
"A confrontational approach would be ineffective," Parsons added.
As Sheen's list of reported indiscretions mounts, it could be an eye-opener for him, Parsons said, adding that "a good therapist could use this as a potential way to get in."
The sooner treatment begins, the better the prognosis, Goldman said. "By the time someone reaches rock bottom, the disease is in a more progressed state and intervention is more difficult."
Some forms of mental illness have a higher association with addiction than others, Goldman said. "Depression might drive people to escape from that feeling, or if someone's manic, they may want to calm themselves down and avoid the racing thoughts," he said.
In the case of co-occurring disorders, both need to be treated simultaneously for a successful recovery, Goldman said.
"You can't force someone to get help unless they are a danger to themselves or others," he said. On the other hand, "You can't do nothing," he added.
Nothing more than a publicity stunt?
Getting friends on board would help, Parsons said. But some of Sheen's pals have told reporters they think he's mentally stable.
George Santo Pietro, a friend of Sheen's, told ABC News that Sheen is still in control. "There's a method to his madness," Pietro said. "There's a bigger story to Charlie than everyone has seen."
Others maintain that Sheen's dramatics are part of a carefully calculated publicity stunt. But, if that's the case, said Parsons, "it backfired."
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