Lena Zavaroni and the desperation to cure mental illness — #MHAW17

This post was originally published on my old Wordpress blog in 2015. I have edited it slightly for my 7 day mental health blog takeover, in support of #MHAW17.

Somehow, one Friday night, I found myself watching a programme called "20 moments that rocked talent shows" on Channel 5 here in the UK. Most of it was the usual stuff, but one story in particular stayed with me. 

It was the tragic, but important tale of Lena Zavaroni, someone who you may or may not be familiar with. She originally skyrocketed to fame on the talent show "Opportunity Knocks", but unfortunately began to develop anorexia nervosa in her early teens. She attributed this to the pressure placed upon her by the industry she was in, but whatever the case, she fought a hard battle with the illness for many years and was a brave, beautiful and talented woman.

Being a regular attendee of the eating disorder clinic myself and a long-time sufferer of mental illness, I spent some time looking up old clips from TV interviews with Lena on YouTube. I wanted to see the way that the media portrayed her mental illness at the time.

It is amazing to see evidence of the progress we have made over the last forty years. During the interview clips from the seventies and eighties, hosts were polite and sympathetic, but Lena's condition was barely ever referred to as a mental illness. 

We know today that eating disorders are primarily mental health conditions, with physical symptoms and consequences as a byproduct. They can be developed for a number of complex reasons and are not simply through the desire to 'look good'. In Lena's time (and following the death of Karen Carpenter - one of the first high-profile anorexics) the public knew little about the disease. Lena was presumed to be able to 'snap out of it' at any time, simply through deciding that she wanted to eat again.

One thing I noticed from her TV interviews is that she seemingly always felt the pressure to announce to everyone that she had overcome her problems and was fine and well. This is something I can relate to, as I have done it myself. When you are ill, you desperately want to get better, and so telling everyone that you are is a way of convincing yourself that everything is okay. It also gets people off your back, and they start to treat you normally again.

What makes me sad is that you could see in Lena's eyes that she was clearly unwell every time she said she was fine. It was the lack of widespread knowledge about her disorder that pressured her into making such statements. She never seemed to be given the time to truly recover.

Many times throughout her life, Lena tried to be happy. If she had been going through her ordeal today, she may have had a significantly better chance of making a full recovery. That is perhaps the saddest thing, but something that anyone with a mental illness should be grateful of today. The difference between where the world is now compared to even the last ten years, is astonishing.

When Lena was suffering, people were still trying to understand this confusing illness and how to treat it. In the last years of her life, she left the showbiz world in an attempt to live a 'regular life'. After some unfortunate events, however, Lena became depressed and began to struggle with anorexia once again. It was at this time she became convinced that due to so many failed attempts at recovery, the only explanation for her mental illnesses was a problem with part of her brain which needed to be fixed. Threatening suicide if her wishes were not met, she was admitted for a psychosurgical operation. Tragically, three weeks after this she contracted pneumonia and died at the age of thirty-five.

Lena's story reflects the desperation that anyone with a mental illness feels daily. We dream of a 'normal healthy brain', and at our lowest we feel would try anything in order to achieve it. Unfortunately, Lena took a fatal risk to cure her illness with something that would rarely be offered to a patient, especially one in such a dangerous physical condition, today.

Despite the continuous campaigns for greater and faster research, advances are still taking place within the field of mental health treatments and medicine. Who knows where we will stand in another forty years? Mental illness might even be treated or prevented with a simple injection!

All I know is that people like Lena, who have died such tragic premature deaths, must not be forgotten for the impacts they have had on mental health treatment along with the public's perception of mental illness. It is a heartbreaking story, but it highlights the progress which has taken place and the difference she unknowingly made to the lives of countless others.

Lena was an incredible vocalist so I thought it would be best for us all to remember her doing what she did best. If you would like to read more about Lena, you can visit her Wikipedia

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