Last week, rapper, producer and frequent pop culture pariah, Kanye West, was hospitalized following a bout of increasingly unpredictable behavior that culminated with the artist cancelling his remaining Saint Pablo tour stops.
Following a particularly vitriolic rant in San Jose – a prelude to the official announcement of the tour’s abrupt end – West returned to Los Angeles where he succumbed to what many outlets initially reported as a “nervous breakdown.”
Shortly after, the circumstances of West’s hospitalization – namely the 5150 psychiatric hold he was placed under – became fodder for the gossip mill after the 911 call surrounding the incident became public.
West’s celebrity friends, and even some of his detractors, were quick to take to social media to offer up prayers and theorize the cause of his seemingly deteriorating health.
Yet for every well-wisher there were voices of dissent that made light of West’s troubles.
So what is it about the potent cocktail of celebrity, accessibility and social media that brings out the pitchfork-wielding, witch-hunting, burn-’em-in-the-town-square, Lord of the Flies-level assholery in so many of us?
Logically it makes very little sense: we live in a country where mental disorders are far more common than we acknowledge. One in five people suffer from mental health issues and African-Americans in particular are 20% more likely to contend with a serious disorder than the rest of the population. Despite that, many people don’t think twice about having a laugh at the expense of people like Kanye West, Kid Cudi, Zayn Malik and so many more.
Perhaps part of the problem is that we have commodified and deified celebrities to the point that it’s easy to forget they are real people. “There is an extreme amount of pressure being in the public eye,” psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author Dr. Mike Dow explains:
Dr. Mike Dow
“We all have times when we just need to be left alone to recover – whether we’re getting off a 10-hour flight, are sick, have just suffered a loss, etc. Ratings don’t spike when someone walks down the street, but if you get a video of Mel Gibson drunk, you better believe you’ve just earned a big paycheck that will sell magazine copies. The point is: there are people waiting to profit from catching celebrities at their worst, and this can be hard for people to deal with.”
As a society we have deemed dealing with constant invasions of privacy, a parade of unsolicited opinions and a frightening lack of personal space or time an acceptable price for fame. What’s more, we expect public figures to display a Saint-like ability to take abuse, turn the other cheek and still bless fans with unmitigated access to their lives.
In short, the pitfalls of fame and the frighteningly common occurrence of mental disorders create the perfect maelstrom to produce incidents like Britney Spear’s head-shaving, weaponized umbrella ordeal of yesteryear.
At the time of his hospitalization West was undergoing one of the more grueling parts of being a musician – touring. It might seem glamorous, but the reality is that night after night of performances followed by afterparties and then promptly traveling to the next city would wear even the hardiest personality down.
So it’s not exactly surprising that West’s doctor initially told responders he was suffering from temporary psychosis brought on by sleep deprivation and dehydration. “When your sympathetic nervous system takes over (your ‘fight or flight’ response), your brain releases a cascade of stress hormones,” says Dr. Dow.
“Adrenaline and norepinephrine are released followed by the stress hormone cortisol. When you are in a state of fear – whether it’s a real danger, imagined or a self-imposed stressor like needing to be ‘the best’ at something – like the stories of Michael Jackson needing every tour to be legendary – your sympathetic nervous system never gets a break. Without having a break, the body can respond by creating psychological symptoms like extreme anxiety or panic attacks. Our brains and bodies were not designed to stay in permanent states of fight or flight.”
He continues, “a ‘nervous breakdown’ can be an extreme version of what happens when you don’t get a break. There are cases where people literally have ‘dropped dead’ from overworking (e.g., the young Toyota executive, the video game player who went days without sleeping). So yes, we do need rest. When you sleep, your neurons expand so your brain can enter its “wash cycle” which allows plaques to get flushed away more efficiently. This is why people who don’t sleep eight hours a night are more likely to develop dementia. The plaques eventually cause brain fog.”
Of course this is one of many factors, but when compounded with the lack of discretion and sometimes the lack of empathy that accompanies a public figure’s admission of vulnerability, it’s a miracle many celebs manage to bounce back.
“There’s increased stress from the constant early mornings and flights; the fan attention; the online criticism; the expectations of the record label to clear 10 million with the next record. There’s also the easy access to drugs and alcohol,” said LA-based Dr. Monya De when asked about other elements that contribute to agitating emotional and mental distress.
Still, not every insensitive reaction to mental illness is spawned from malice. The sad truth is that many of us simply don’t understand how incapacitating such disorders can be. If your brain functions in the way the status quo deems “normal” it can be difficult to understand how another person could be victimized by their own mind.
Even though the conversation around mental health is expanding, unfortunately, conversation and culture don’t always move at the same rate. There is still a taboo clinging to mental health issues. Stigma, fear of disclosure and the at-times astronomical cost of treatment does nothing to persuade many struggling adults to seek treatment. In fact, despite over 40 million Americans dealing with mental disorders, over 56% of adults with diagnosed issues did not receive treatment this year alone.
So the next time you’re cracking a “Kanye is crazy” joke remember that he, while admittedly a controversial figure, is a person. Not only that, he is a person who is a microcosm of the many people we live alongside who are battling mental health issues.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the experiences of people like him, Dave Chappelle, Kid Cudi or even Zayn Malik, who cancelled an October performance due to extreme anxiety, it’s that a life of constant exposure and impossible expectations is manageable at best and debilitating at worst.
- Lead Image: KanyeToThe.com