The Ugly Truth About The Way We Deal With Celebrities & Mental Illness

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Editor's note: A handful of readers have pointed out that Robin Williams' death, according to his family, was a result of his battle with a brain disease called Lewy Body Dementia. While anxiety and depression were symptoms and side effects of this disease, it is not a mental illness in the traditional sense. We appreciate the feedback, and the article has been updated to reflect that point. I think Kanye West is great. I always have. I have also always suspected him to be living with Bipolar Disorder Type I. To be clear, I don’t know Kanye West. I don’t know anyone who knows Kanye West. I’m also not a doctor, nor is it my job to diagnose mental illness even among people I actually interact with. But I am someone who works with the mentally ill and am very familiar with these illnesses' signs and symptoms. I know mania when I see it. And what I saw in Saturday’s rant — his long, seemingly impromptu speech at a Sacramento concert about everything from Donald Trump to how Beyoncé supposedly rigged the VMAs — were behaviors consistent with mental illness, including possible grandiosity, paranoia, flight of ideas, and delusions of persecution. So no, I’m not in a position to diagnose a celebrity with a mental illness. But what I am is an obnoxiously vocal advocate for those living with mental illness. And right now, that may or may not include Kanye West. The same Kanye West who, this week, claimed that Jay Z would like to put a hit out on him. Who is currently in treatment for dehydration and exhaustion after someone reportedly called 911 on his behalf during a "psychiatric emergency." Who has been reported to stay up in his studio for over 48 hours at a time, and casually mentions in one of his verses on “Clique” that he has experienced deep depressive episodes and considered suicide in the past.
Despite all of this, we still find ourselves immediately defaulting to judgment when he finally falls to pieces in public in a very real and big way. We spent the rest of the weekend pointing at Kanye’s misfortune, his confusion, his aggression, and saying “Look, there he goes again. He’s such an asshole.” Because the ugly truth about the way we think about mental illness, especially when it comes to celebrities, is this: It’s okay — admirable, even — to say you have it. But it’s not okay to show it. It’s kind of like when Britney Spears was shaving her head and swinging umbrellas at cars, and we laughed at how she might lose her kids over her erratic behavior. Then there was the time Amanda Bynes started crashing her car and wearing terrible wigs and tweeting at Drake to “murder her vagina,” so we watched and laughed and retweeted it a million times. But then Robin Williams died by suicide after a battle with Lewy Body Dementia, and we couldn’t believe it. The world had just lost a true talent; we cried. He was the star of so many of our most beloved movies. Why didn’t he reach out for help? Why didn’t he tell anyone? Well, guys, maybe it’s because he saw that we were all busy gawking at headlines about Amanda Bynes accidentally setting her dog on fire.

It’s okay — admirable, even — to say you have a mental illness. But it’s not okay to show it.

Maybe he didn’t tell anyone because he knew our society wasn’t prepared to help him. Kanye told us about his suicidal thoughts. “Clique” came out in 2012, and I wonder who of Kanye’s concerned fans reached out to him. I know I didn’t. But I did joke about his grandiosity plenty of times. Like when he stopped a concert to proclaim to the world that he invented leather sweatpants and I could not stop laughing about it even though I knew what it meant. I am part of the problem, too, and I know better. When a person is larger than life, it has become the delight of us peasants to tear that person down. Like when we made fun of Amy Winehouse and her substance abuse problem right up until she actually died from it. As if posthumously declaring her a cultural treasure made up for how miserable our intrusiveness made her actual life. In fact, look at all the people who are up in arms over Lindsay Lohan this week. The internet is so angry with her for makeup-shaming Ariana Grande. But guys, have you freaking seen the shit that we’ve been saying about Lindsay Lohan all these years? We love nothing more than making fun of Lindsay’s new accent and her old alleged cocaine problem, but how dare she speak about Ariana Grande’s nude-colored matte lippy! The actual funny (or sad) thing is that we‘ve told ourselves we’re getting better about talking about mental illness. When Lena Dunham posts on Instagram about her anxiety and OCD we applaud her transparency. We celebrate stars who casually mention that they live with depression or anxiety or an eating disorder. But just this week, when so many shared the video of a grossly psychotic Shelley Duvall on Dr. Phil with lame captions like “So sad!” or “What is she on?!” we also silently delivered the message to all those living with mental illness, “We support you, stigma warriors! Just don’t let us see any of your weird, messy stuff.” Kanye West may have a very real illness, and if he does, I hope he gets well. I hope that his family is able to support him and each other during this time. And mostly, I wish that our culture is someday able to put aside its constant negativity, its love of laughing and pointing at people who are suffering from things out of their control. I truly hope that we can find it in ourselves to wish our idols and icons well before they die from the illness that entertained us so terribly.

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