Substance Use Disorders Amongst Young Celebrities

In 1973, actor and martial-arts expert Bruce Lee experienced a minor headache. After taking Equagesic, a prescription painkiller, Lee slipped into a coma and never awoke. It was determined that the cause of the 32-year-old actor’s death was a reaction to an ingredient in the pain medication he took. Recently, a collection of letters written by Lee was found at a flea market. These letters, which have been authenticated by experts, revealed that friend and fellow actor, Robert Baker, supplied drugs to Lee in secret for several years. This discovery adds Bruce Lee to a long list of celebrities who have struggled with substance abuse.  

In one letter, Lee wrote to Baker, “I was throwing stones like hell, but I am working on the next character… some coke will help…” This statement indicates that Lee had become dependent on the use of certain substances to deal with his work. Cocaine, acid, “hash” or “grass,” and mushrooms were mentioned in Lee’s letters. 

The content of Lee’s unearthed letters highlights issues some celebrities may have with substance use disorders (SUD). The lives of celebrities are often very public which can lead to constant scrutiny from media and fans. Celebrities may feel an immense pressure to be perfect which could be why many celebrities choose to keep their substance use struggles as private as Lee did. The general stress of being famous can also cause celebrities to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. 

Throughout the history of Hollywood, developing a SUD has been especially prevalent among young celebrities. The revelation of Bruce Lee’s letters contribute to this idea. Lee, who grew up in Hong Kong, was a childhood actor. At the age of 1, Lee appeared in his first film, Golden Gate Girl. Lee had been in 20 films by the age of 20. It is possible the pressures of fame and work led to his substance use, like many other young celebrities. These are a few young celebrities who struggled with a SUD. 

Judy Garland’s Cycle Of Substances

At age 13, Judy Garland signed to the American media company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as a contract player. Early on in her career, Garland received criticism about her appearance and weight. The studio put the young actress on Amphetamine-based diet pills to control weight and keep up her energy for long days of work. At the end of each day, Garland was given sleeping pills. This cycle of pills created an intense dependency on substances which caused her to struggle with substance use for the rest of her life. Her long-term addiction resulted in her death by accidental overdose which occurred in 1969. As a celebrity, constant attention on appearance, pressures to work long hours, and influence of the studio contributed to the development of Garland’s substance use. 

Drew Barrymore Was A 12-Year-Old “Party Girl”

Drew Barrymore’s acting career kicked off when she was in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial when she was 7 years old. By age 12, Barrymore was a self proclaimed “party girl” and was doing Cocaine at nightclubs with her mother regularly. The actress sought treatment at age 14 where she was able to treat her SUD at the source. The facility recommended she legally separate from her mother and one year later she was emancipated. Today, Barrymore is grateful for her time in treatment and that she is no longer a celebrity struggling with substance use. 

Matthew Perry Doesn’t Remember Filming Some Of Friends Because Of Substance Use

Friends actor and celebrity, Matthew Perry, has spoken about his struggles with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) during the early years of the popular series. Perry, who was 23 when the show began, has said that there are 3 full seasons that he doesn’t remember filming because of his substance use. Although Perry claims he never drank on set, the effects of his alcohol use, such as feeling hungover, were still present. Perry described this time as the loneliest time of his life, despite it looking like he “had it all” from the outside. 

Justin Bieber’s Overnight Fame Led To Use Of Substances

In 2020, Canadian singer Justin Bieber addressed his struggles with drug use. Bieber admitted that he began smoking Marijuana at about age 12. After becoming dependent on marijuana, Bieber turned to heavier substances such as alcohol, lean, prescription pills, MDMA, and mushrooms. Bieber has also opened up about how overwhelming it was for him to become a household name at age 13. 

“Millions of fans were saying how much they loved me and how great I was. You hear these things as a young boy and you actually start believing it … So by this point I was 18 with no skills in the real world, with millions of dollars and access to whatever I wanted. This is a very scary concept for anyone,” Bieber said on Instagram in 2019. 

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Why Are Young Celebrities Prone To Addiction?

In general, people may turn to substances to cope with experiences, memories, or events that emotionally overwhelm them. When one is emotionally overwhelmed, they feel an intense emotion that is difficult to manage. This can affect their ability to think or act rationally. Often being emotionally overwhelmed can be caused by stress, traumatic experiences, or relationship issues. When someone uses substances to deal with this feeling, the original issue gets worse rather than better. For young celebrities, being famous, public criticism, and work stress can be overwhelming. 

The concept of fame, on its own, can be addictive. The developing brain of a child or young adult can get used to a certain level of attention and flattery. As child celebrities age or their careers shift, this attention may disappear. Because they have become addicted to the feeling of being adored, they may fill this void with substance use. Additionally, child celebrities are often in environments where temptations are high with few people who will tell them no. 

For more information on substance use disorders and how to treat them, contact a treatment provider today.

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Emily Murray

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  • Emily Murray is a Digital Content Writer at Addiction Center. She earned a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies with Behavioral/Social Sciences and Art concentrations along with a Journalism minor from the University of Central Florida. Dedicated to creativity and conciseness, Emily hopes her words can be of service to those affected by addiction.

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