David Harbor reflects on mental illness and finding fame later in life

American actor David Harbor has said that “having mental illness is a natural condition of poverty”, as he reflects on his struggle with mental illness.

Harbor, 47, rose to fame for his portrayal of Jim Hopper on the Netflix sci-fi drama series Stranger Things.

Speaking to Big Issue magazine about her experience living with bipolar disorder, Harbor said: “My particular big problem is what society would call mental illness. At 26, I was diagnosed with bipolar after an episode that landed me in an institution.

“I have been struggling with the medical model of mental illness for a long time. I started to get really involved in trauma talk therapy in particular, and found that narrative and stories, dealing intellectually and emotionally with personal trauma, have been much more liberating for me than hospitals and drugs.”

He added: “I have definitely been in and out of the system. And there were times in my life where I very easily could have ended up on the streets, but luckily I had a family that was able to support me through those tough, difficult times.”

Evaluating potential triggers of mental illness, Harbor said, “There is a component of mental illness that requires medication, but there is also a very social component of mental illness.

“It’s not like a broken leg. What defines insanity is social inadequacy. But it’s very socially inappropriate, in a sense, not to have enough money to live on.

“Being mentally ill is a natural condition of poverty. When you can’t participate in society by going out to buy lunch and going into a store and stuff, you’ll go crazy.

“It’s chicken and egg. They go hand in hand”.

Before landing the role of Hopper on Stranger Things, Harbor had many acting roles, but none of them made him famous.

He said: “I reached the age of 35 and, in my mind, I had been quite successful. I was able to pay rent for an apartment, have food on the table and I was very happy about it.

“The dream of being on a talk show was always a marker for me and I quit at 35.

Strange things
David Harbor stars alongside Winona Ryder in Netflix hit Stranger Things (Netflix/PA)

“And then it hit me really hard a month after I hit 40. I remember walking in and I was really upset because I was still in this place where I had no money, I was worried about how I was going to pay my rent.

“I thought it was one of those situations, which happens a lot when you’re an official actor where a star has been offered the role.

“They’re just looking for backup. I loved the script, but I didn’t really invest much in it.”

Reflecting on the success of the show, which won multiple Emmys and received four Golden Globe nominations, Harbor said: “Even when we were shooting it, I felt like this is a show that I would love but no one is going to watch.

“It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my career. One by one I started getting tons of texts saying, ‘Stranger Things is awesome, I love this show.

“I have never experienced that before or since. It was truly a magical moment. The reviews and numbers hadn’t come in, but at that point I knew it was something special that really moved people.”

The full interview with David Harbor is available in The Big Issue.

Copies are available from local Big Issue vendors or via online subscription at www.bigissue.com/subscribe.


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