Lebowski Fest founder Will Russell explains his mental breakdown, journey to stability

Lebowski Fest founder Will Russell explains his mental breakdown, journey to stability
Will Russell was a successful Louisville business owner when he lost it all during a manic episode in 2015. (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Russell vandalized his own stores before going into bankruptcy. (Source: WAVE 3 News Archive)
Russell vandalized his own stores before going into bankruptcy. (Source: WAVE 3 News Archive)
Today Russell is back in the spotlight, but has gotten treatment and is sharing his experience to help others. (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Today Russell is back in the spotlight, but has gotten treatment and is sharing his experience to help others. (Source: WAVE 3 News)

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Three years after a public breakdown damaged his career and personal life, Will Russell is talking about what he went through in hopes of shedding the stigma of mental illness.

In 2015, Russell's successful 20-year career, that included writing a best-selling book, opening WHY Louisville and founding Lebowski Fest, seemed to be spiraling down.

Property was destroyed at the amusement park he was renovating, his store was vandalized, and a fire was set inside his home.

Russell was the one behind all of it.

"A lot of people made the assumption that I was just a terrible person and I understand that," Russell said.

Russell was arrested multiple times in just a few months and lost nearly everything.

Both of his WHY Louisville shops had to shut down, he lost ownership of Funtown Mountain, and he declared bankruptcy.

What he did all played out in the media, but, the reason behind it is a much deeper story.

Russell is diagnosed as bi-polar. After two decades of sobriety and successful treatment, he went off of his medication. Fueled by a return to substance abuse, Russell was in the midst of a manic episode.

He sought treatment in late 2015. Spending a month in an inpatient facility, he got back on his prescribed medications and became sober again.

"I feel very fortunate to have gone so far off the edge as I did and come back to tell the story," Russell said.

Monday, he spoke to a room full of people at the National Alliance on Mental Illness' Annual Membership Meeting.

It was his first time talking about what he went through to a big group.

"My life is very different but it does feel a little more meaningful, that instead of selling t-shirts that I'm speaking about mental health and helping people that have struggles of their own," Russell said.

Russell said the consequences of the 2015 manic episode will be with him for the rest of his life, but with time and family support he has returned to a stable life.

"My message is that having a mental illness isn't the end of the world," Russell said. "That people with mental health issues can still live rich and full lives."

Though Russell lost his businesses, he's still a big part of Lebowski Fest. Part of the proceeds from this year's festival will be donated to mental health organizations.

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