Wil Wheaton Gives Powerful Speech about Mental Health Struggles, Inspires Us with Both His Strength and Vulnerability
Trigger warning: this article addresses depression, self-harm and suicide.
He’s appeared on The Big Bang Theory, starred on Star Trek: The Next Generation and received countless awards for his work. But despite appearances, Wil Wheaton’s life has been a struggle for most of his 45 years.
Wheaton, who battles chronic depression and anxiety, is a staunch mental health advocate — and he just delivered one of the most powerful speeches on the topic at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) conference in Ohio.
Mental illness can start in childhood
Addressing the crowd, the actor opened up about the heart-wrenching suffering he went through for decades, fueled by adults’ lack of understanding and a refusal to admit that since before he was 10 he had mental health issues.
“Night after night, I’d wake up in absolute terror, and night after night, I’d drag my blankets off my bed, to go to sleep on the floor in my sister’s bedroom, because I was so afraid to be alone,” he shared at the conference and on Medium.
There is nothing noble in suffering, and there is nothing shameful or weak in asking for help.
The nightly panic attacks evolved into generalized anxiety by the time Wheaton hit his teens, and even tough he realized he suffered from depression in his 20s, he did not seek help.
He was still afraid that the medication he knew he needed would change his personality. And he was ashamed. He felt weak for being depressed. He was afraid he would disappoint and hurt his loved ones.
One of the primary reasons I speak out about my mental illness, is so that I can make the difference in someone’s life that I wish had been made in mine when I was young.
It can mean not living, just existing
The fame that came in Wheaton’s teens from starring in Stand by Me only made things worse. Industry professionals belittled and berated him for his suffering, so he continued to hide it.
“I struggled to reconcile the facts of my life with the reality of my existence. […] I didn’t know to ask for help.” And until he did, he didn’t live – he just existed. His mental illness often prevented him from enjoying even the smallest, most natural aspects of life most enjoy without a second thought: going out to see a movie, grab dinner, enjoying a vacation.
I realized I had lived my life in a room that was so loud, all I could do every day was deal with how loud it was.
Wheaton credits his wife for finally seeking professional help, a decision that changed his life from just existing and hurting to actually living and being happy.
“Thank God that my wife saw that I was hurting, and thank God she didn’t believe the lie that depression is weakness, or something to be ashamed of,” Wheaton told his Ohio audience. “Thank God for Anne, because […] I don’t know how much longer I would have been able to even exist, to say nothing of truly living,” he added.
That’s the thing about depression: we can’t force it to go away. If I could just “stop feeling sad” I WOULD.
Professional help can save your life
The life-changing experience of seeking professional help encouraged Wheaton to make sure as many people – including children – get the help they need when struggling with mental health issues.
Whether it’s by talking to those who reach out to him online, or supporting organizations as NAMI, the Big Bang Theory star has committed himself to removing the stigma of mental health from public discourse and people’s hearts – especially from the hearts of sufferers still afraid and ashamed to ask for help.
He wants to remind everyone that it can get better.
Give yourself permission to acknowledge that you’re feeling terrible (or bad, or whatever it is you are feeling), and the do a little thing, just one little thing, that you probably don’t feel like doing, and I PROMISE you it will help.
Wheaton also took time to emphasize the importance of self-care in recovery. And not (just) the glamorous self-care ubiquitous on Instagram with shopping sprees and expensive spa sessions, but habits like healthy eating, regular exercise or playing with a dog.
He also spoke about the life-saving work non-governmental organizations do, and the importance of top-down reform that starts with elected officials as well as the power voters have to demand change.
We can remember, and we can remind each other, that there is no finish line when it comes to mental illness. It’s a journey, and sometimes we can see the path we’re on all the way to the horizon, while other times we can’t even see five feet in front of us because the fog is so thick. But the oath is always there, and if we can’t locate it on our own, we have loved ones and doctors and medication to help us find it again, as long as we don’t give up trying to see it.
Read the speech in its entirety here. For tips on how to start a conversation about mental health, read Lady Gaga’s mom’s advice on getting the mental health conversation rolling.
Editor’s Note: Struggling and feeling hopeless? You are not alone. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).