How Kanye West Is Helping To Destigmatize Mental Illness

How Kanye West Is Helping To Destigmatize Mental Illness

In 2007, Kanye West made his mark and claimed an iconic position in the hip-hop industry, being perceived as a modern-day musical genius. Complementing his self-acclaimed comparisons to Picasso and Shakespeare, his peculiar behaviors and comments were seen as part of his uniquely flamboyant style. Fans perceived West as a prodigy primarily due to his distinct cadence, wit and the captivating je-ne-sais-quoi of his musical output.

As time has passed and the onion has been peeled, we have been exposed to another side of Kanye. In a recent speech related to his presidential campaign, he was seen to rant incoherently, revealing his struggle with contemplating his daughter’s abortion before erupting into tears. This incident has arisen on the background of his admission to struggling with bipolar disorder in 2018 – a mental illness characterized by paroxysms of mania and depression – yet often associated with genius and creativity.

Following recent comments about President Trump, slavery and his decision to run for public office, a cadre of mental health professionals have suggested that the media reconsider its approach to covering Kanye West’s actions. His recent flurry of tweets recently posted-and-deleted, publicization of his struggle with his wife – Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy and his admission that she had attempted to have him forcibly restrained – may illustrate the smoldering embers of his struggle with mental illness. With the increasing scrutiny and concern by the public and media regarding Kanye’s mental health, the trifecta of societal challenges with mental illness have been unveiled: stigmatization of the mentally ill, unfamiliarity with how best to support through mental illness, and uncertainty of how to relate to the dreams, aspirations and desires of those who are suffering.

Stigmatization of mental illness has been a problem for a very long time

Stigmatization of mental illness has existed since time immemorial. Ancient Greeks were known to shun and incarcerate those with diseases driving behavioral abnormalities, often attributing their conditions to punishment by the gods. In today’s world, approximately 11% of our global population is estimated to suffer from some form of mental illness at any given point in time, and over 60 million people in the USA suffer from mental illness in a given year. Considering the interdependent nature of our societal frameworks, this translates into billions of lives affected by mental illness, considering the family members, friends, and coworkers of those who struggle. Mental illness does not only affect those directly afflicted; it affects us all.

Many who struggle with serious mental illness face the dual challenges of coping with the direct disabilities and functional impairments produced by disease, while also being victimized by pejorative stereotypes and prejudices. This double-taxation does not serve to improve their ability to function in society and can, in fact, reduce their chances of recovery. In addition to often being robbed of the opportunities that typically emblematize a quality life – a good job, satisfying relationships and safe housing –  those with mental illness are also discouraged from engaging in care-seeking behavior, further compounding their struggle. As shared by psychological scientist Patrick W. Corrigan, the prejudice and discrimination of mental illness may ‘indeed be as disabling as the illness itself’.

Many key figures struggle with mental illness and should be embraced for their role in driving destigmatization

Given that stigma is, in effect, defined by widely shared sociocultural sets of beliefs, a colossal level of action and advocacy will be required to overcome the inertia of mass perception. Like the tiny mustard seed that grows into a titan of a tree, our lofty ambitions of widespread acceptance of mental illness must be fueled by individual testimonials of vulnerability. Much will be yielded through sharing personal journeys of struggle and recovery, particularly on platforms held by our icons of influence.

Celebrities who openly share their mental health challenges can indeed serve as catalysts to societal change. Elon Musk and Adele have shared their struggles in the public domain, and – in so doing – have inspired many. Admired by many, Elon has described the corrosive effects of stress on his own mental health, and has admitted to experiencing highs and lows reminiscent of bipolar disorder. Similarly, Adele’s openness about her struggle with postpartum depression has brought deserved attention to a relatively poorly-understood and debilitating mental disorder.

Mental illness does not discriminate by class, race or gender. In the Caribbean isles, renowned and talented Skatalite musician Don Drummond – considered to be Jamaica’s most talented trombonist – was himself reputed to suffer from mental illness, which culminated in tragic circumstances for both himself and his lover. Within Royal circles, Prince Harry has himself admitted to suffering from anxiety during royal engagements in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s passing, driving him to launch the Heads Together campaign to help “end the stigma around mental health issues”.

Celebrity endorsement is not enough to drive societal destigmatization and does not recuse us of our individual responsibility

Stigmatization, as a societal phenomenon, must be battled by collective societal action and we all have an injunction to play our part against this formidable adversary to supplement and amplify the efforts of our iconic figures. Perceptions and behaviors are highly influenced by local values; local influencers must proactively seek to socialize the destigmatization of mental illness through culturally appropriate and relatable channels.

Safe spaces need to be created for the open and non-judgmental ventilation of mental health challenges, and it must occur on a global scale, both in developed and developing countries. The It Gets Brighter Campaign in Oxford, co-founded by Dr. Joshua Chauvin, is a model campaign aiming to destigmatize mental illness through inviting open conversation by both those with mental illness and those who care for them. In Thailand, young entrepreneurs like Amornthep Sachamuneewongse are serving as influential ambassadors for mental health and vulnerability. Such exemplars of local ambassadorship should be commended, encouraged and replicated.

As we forge ahead, it is hoped that celebrities and others who hold seats of influence will openly share their struggles and propel the global movement of destigmatization. Only in acknowledging our collective vulnerability can we take the required steps to remediate our societal misperceptions. With society evolving at record pace, our collective duty to transcend the stigmas facing those with mental illness is now incumbent. Despite the progress that has been made over the years, much remains to be done, and – true to the words of Yeezy – ‘our work is never over’.

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