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What so many people got wrong about Heath Ledger's death ten years ago.

When Heath Ledger died of a prescription drug overdose ten years ago today, the media scrambled to answer the questions its shocked audiences were asking. Misinformation, even fabrication, flourished amid the race for clicks and copy sales.

The speculation about the ‘when’ and ‘where’ were soon countered by police; “found dead in an apartment owned by Mary-Kate Olsen”, became found dead at the foot of the bed in his SoHo apartment 2:45pm.

It was speculation around the ‘why’, though, that proved the most persistent. A decade on, the idea that the 28-year-old was a man struggling, a man driven to death by his demons remains a central part of Ledger‘s too-short story.

But how true is it?

Reporting around Ledger’s death was padded with quotes from anonymous sources who spoke of his “drug problem”, or how the breakdown of his marriage to Michelle Williams and separation from his then two-year-old daughter, Matilda, he’d “thrown [him] into a deep, dark depression“.

But the most pervasive theory, by far, was that his commitment to the role of The Joker in the 2008 film The Dark Knight sucked him into a state of sleepless sorrow, that his maniacal character’s darkness had somehow followed him home.

‘Heath Ledger couldn’t snap out of character’, ‘The sleepless stress of a troubled star’, read the headlines.

The idea was fuelled when Jack Nicholson weighed in on Ledger’s death just two days later. The actor, who played the villainous role in the 1989 film Batman, told reporters simply, ambiguously, “Well, I warned him.”

It’s a dark, tragic, almost-romantic narrative – an actor so swept up in his method that it led to some kind of madness. But by all accounts that matter – those of his family, friends, colleagues – not an accurate one.

Ledger’s sister, Kate, later said speculation linking her brother’s performance in The Dark Knight to mental ill-health were entirely unfounded.

“I was really shocked, because that was him having fun,” she told The Telegraph. “Every report was coming out that he was depressed and that [the role] was taking this toll on him, and we’re going, honestly, it was the absolute opposite. It couldn’t be more wrong.”

Ledger as The Joker. Image: Warner Bros.
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The autopsy concluded Ledger had died of an accidental overdose of prescription medications: Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, Diazepam, Temazepam, Alprazolam and Doxylamine.

According to the New York City medical examiner, Ledger had not taken any of the drugs to excess: “It’s the combination of the drugs that caused the problem," a spokesperson told The New York Times. "All these drugs have a cumulative effect on the body.”

Ledger's father, Kim, told the ABC the medications were prescribed to treat the insomnia his son had suffered for years, and the chest infections he seem to be regularly fighting off. His regular travelling meant seeing multiple different doctors, and a deadly accumulation of prescriptions.

"In Heath's case, he mixed some of these drugs for a chest infection with sleeping tablets and that is literally what slowed his system down sufficiently enough to put him to sleep forever," the grieving father said.

LISTEN: The Mamamia Out Loud team discuss the 'No Zero Days' rule, a helpful strategy for anyone battling with mental health or doing it tough.

According to data released late last year by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2016 drug-induced deaths reached their highest numbers since the heroin crisis of the late 1990s. The majority of those deaths - more than heroin, more than meth, more than alcohol - were caused by prescription medications, and 71.3 per cent were accidental.

The most common - Benzodiazepines (eg. Temazepam), Oxycodone and Codeine - were alone associated with 1213 drug-induced deaths that year.

"Heath's passing really just highlights what is happening everywhere, whether it's by accident, and in most cases it is by accident, of course," Kim Ledger told ABC.

Ledger's legacy

As the Founding Patron of Scriptwise, an organisation dedicated to preventing prescription drug misuse, Kim Ledger now works to help ensure other families don't suffer the loss felt by his.

Part of this involved campaigning for a nation-wide, real-time prescription monitoring system to prevent over-prescribing and doctor shopping (in which dependant patients obtain scripts from multiple doctors).

On July 28 last year, the federal government announced $16 million would be channelled towards doing just that.

"This issue of misuse of prescription medicine is a growing trend in our community, and although it is not the only response required, it is a very important step," Health Minister Greg Hunt said in a statement. "Real-time reporting will assist doctors and pharmacists to identify patients who are at risk of harm due to dependency, misuse or abuse of controlled medicines, and patients who are diverting these medicines."

It's part of the answer to the one question that really needs answering after Heath Ledger's death: what next?

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