Hunter Thompson and Mental Health

by George Thomas Clark

February 28, 2005

Since Hunter Thompson put a gun in his mouth and shot himself last week, I’ve been digging deep into the Internet and reading lots of articles about him. The first wave of stories commended his hard-punching, eye-gouging, "gonzo" style of insightful political writing in such books as "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Kingdom of Fear" and recalled with wonderment and affection his manic consumption of alcohol, LSD, cocaine, and enough other intoxicants to fill the Physician's Desk Reference. A couple of days after the coroner came, many who'd known the man, or witnessed one or more of his countless binges, began to somberly note that he really had drunk, snorted, and dropped too many unforgiving things and such behavior wasn't so amusing and admirable after all. But in none of the articles I've found has anyone said, "Hey, Hunter should have gotten help."

That is amazing, and appallingly typical. If a guy gets a toothache he'll dash to the dentist. A fever sends him scampering to the doctor. A rash drives him scratching to the dermatologist. Heart, liver, kidney, and stomach problems are also widely understood to require medical attention. But what about the human brain? It is easily the most astonishing organ in this solar system, yet it's usually considered a body part unworthy of professional treatment. The essential problem is ignorance; most people still view the brain as a primarily psychic phenomenon and assume that common (even rampant) ailments like depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, and excessive anger should either be ignored or treated with more alcohol or cigarettes or, most admirably, by gnawing on the stick of righteous stoicism.

None of those will work. People whose brains have sentenced them to unrelenting depressive pain, generally because of an intrinsic chemical imbalance, must be me treated medically. A guy like Thompson, who drunkenly barrels into public events, snorts coke in a thousand bathrooms, stands barefoot in the snow shooting guns in the middle of the night, hoards explosives, and repeatedly tells his wife that he's considering suicide, is a guy who needs help. Perhaps his wife did suggest he see a psychiatrist. She should have insisted. Instead, the Associated Press quotes her as having threatened to leave him. His final act certainly wasn't her fault. She couldn't have saved him. Only Thompson had a chance to do that.

When Thompson broke his leg in Hawaii last year, Sean Penn immediately spent twenty-seven grand to fly him back to the writer's "fortified compound" - the focal point of his isolation and paranoia - in Colorado. That was a compassionate gesture by Penn but would have been far more helpful had the jet been pointed toward a mental health facility. Thompson would have bellowed upon arriving. He probably would have refused treatment, claiming he didn't need it but the rest of the world did. He was, however, decidedly capable of admitting some kinds of pain. He acknowledged his hip hurt bad enough to be replaced, and underwent the operation. So Hunter S. Thompson, a very tough guy, or at least a tough talker, was willing to get the best treatment for his leg and his hip. But like too many others in mental distress, he didn't understand his brain also deserved the finest medical attention.