One day after Kanye West’s SNL performance, rumors began circulating that he’d almost walked off the set without performing because of a backstage “meltdown.” Last week, Page Six obtained a recording of West having said “meltdown,” and its contents—out of context and possibly edited—are inconclusive; it’s unclear whether he was set off by any mitigating circumstances other than SNL moving his sets, for one.
The audio leak, though, seemed to confirm in the minds of fans and the media alike that Kanye West was actually having a meltdown. Undiagnosed mania seemed to be the consensus on Twitter, particularly when weighed against his recent strings of effusive, grandiose, stream-of-consciousness tweets. And mental illness was the overall conclusion, even by those speaking from a place of concern, including former collaborator Rhymefest, who tweeted that West “needs help, in the form of counseling. Spiritual and mental.”
In a society in which mental health education is scarce, and we’ve just barely begun discussing the issue publicly—and in which a person’s fluctuating state of mind is often on display on social media—it’s an increasingly casual impulse to deliver armchair diagnoses based on evidence as mundane as a series of tweets. It’s on social media, after all, where people have become more comfortable talking about mental illness (though Kanye West himself had an hand in this push 10 years ago with The College Dropout’s smash “Jesus Walks,” which uses the devil as a metaphor for depression and struggle).
On the one hand, this frequently incautious conversation does prompt awareness of the way mental health is tied up with cultural expectations—the idea that being depressed doesn’t square with a stereotypical “manliness,” for example—that are only just now eroding. It’s still telling to see who is “allowed” to be openly depressed, and who is not. The fact that depression can be nearly fetishized in Twitter accounts that seem to cater to young white women and viewed fearfully and dismissively in the case of a rapper like Kanye is particularly resonant. Communities of color and black people in particular are much less likely to receive adequate mental health care, and since 1993 the suicide rate among black children aged 9 to 11 (yes, you read that right) had more than doubled, in comparison to a decline for whites in the same age group.
But armchair diagnoses—the endpoint of mental health talk on Twitter—are always reductive and often actively harmful. Delivered haphazardly, a diagnosis of a celebrity’s mental illness perpetuates the stigma surrounding people with mental health issues—by and large, people much less powerful than Kanye—and it also furthers the notion that anyone behaving in a particular way must have some modicum of mental health issues, and is exerting correspondingly less control over his own actions.
With Kanye specifically, this idea both excuses his more controversial behavior, behavior that he can and should be held accountable for—“he’s saying wild shit about Taylor Swift because he’s literally crazy!”—and also demeans him, leaving no room for the concept that he is, perhaps, being quite calculated to cause this type of ruckus in the wake of his album rollout. In both cases, the instinct usurps a black American man of his agency, a historically fraught notion in its own right. (The most pervasive, and still influential, example: slavers’ tendency to call adult black men “boy” in an effort to emasculate them and mind-fuck them into dependency.)
Noticing a celebrity’s erratic behavior is as inevitable, as built into the structures of the industry we play a part in, as noticing any dramatic change that occurs in public. It’s hard not to be fascinated; it’s hard not to wonder what’s going on. It’s easy for inquiry to go from well-meaning to uncomfortable, and from uncomfortable to wrong. Armchair psychiatry recalls the phenomenon of tabloids that call on plastic surgeons to evaluate whether a celebrity has had an operation based on a photograph.
Those publications are always careful to disclaim that the surgeons commenting have never worked with the person in question, but in the case of armchair psychiatrists—who certainly don’t limit their lens to Kanye West—it’s even worse. The vagaries of one person’s mind can sometimes be obscure to a licensed psychiatric professional even after years of work together. So while a bystander can presume that Kanye West is manic and off his meds, who’s also to say that he’s not just totally zooted on coffee? You’re not there, and you’re probably not a professional psychiatrist, and even if you were, the assessment takes a hell of a lot of work. Even the perpetually analyzing Dr. Phil refrained from offering a medical diagnosis, telling James Corden he thought West’s behavior was meant just to drum up press. “We’re talking about it, aren’t we?” he asked.
So what does Kanye want from his audience when he raps about depression—specifically calling out Lexapro on both The Life of Pablo’s “FML” and in a verse on Vic Mensa’s 2015 “U Mad”? Perhaps, as Dr. Phil suggested, he just wants us to talk about it. Perhaps he wants this because he wants something that anyone who’s ever talked about a mental health struggle might find familiar—to be recognized, to be contextualized, and then, to be left alone. Depression has always been a rich, deified artistic topic in music, particularly among white males—see the way people react to the legacies of Nick Drake, or Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, or Kurt Cobain—but when a pop artist like Kanye West alludes to it now, it feels shockingly mainstream, resonating with 20,000 people (by Kanye’s count) at a venue like Madison Square Garden. And it prompts fans and writers with similar issues to feel validated and seen, as expressed in a couple of think pieces this week. I’m not exempt from this, either; upon hearing the “FML” lyric at MSG, I triumphantly all-caps Tweeted, “SHOUT OUT LEXAPRO MY FAVORITE DRUG.”
Mania is not listed in the indications for Lexapro, though that’s not to say no one prescribes it for that. Developed specifically to treat depression and anxiety, it’s known generically as Escitalopram (“Lexapro” is the name of the drug manufactured by Forest Laboratories, whose patent expired in 2012), and it’s fairly common, prescribed more than any other antidepressant in the United States. (Empirically speaking, I will never forget the first time my psychiatrist prescribed it to me; when I expressed trepidation that taking such a drug would carry some stigma, he chuckled and said, “Oh please, half of New York City runs on Lexapro.”)
Side effects of Escitalopram include drowsiness, mood shifts, and increased sweating, and if patients go off it abruptly—as West seems to rap in “FML,” and which is not recommended—they can experience discontinuation symptoms such as “chemical disarray” and increased depression. Of course, going off one’s medication is different for everyone (I tend to just cry all the time) but simply saying you’re off your Lex doesn’t warrant headlines like this one (“Is Kanye off his meds? West raps about being ‘outta my mind a long time’ and ‘off his Lexapro’ on new album amid questions about mental health”), or this one (“Kanye West Twitter Rants: Psychologist Explains Rapper’s Behavior”), or this one (“What Do Kanye West’s Rants Reveal About His Mental State?”). Again, the mechanisms linking a person’s behavior to his exact state of chemical medication are difficult enough to understand even when you are that person, or that person’s psychiatrist—from this degree of separation, no matter how unfiltered the tweets start looking, we couldn’t in any meaningful way know.
Remember: Kanye West has control over his lyrics, and he knows exactly what he’s rapping; to assume otherwise infantilizes a 38-year-old man who has built a small empire. It’s possible—though it’s complicated and delicate for me to think about, a person who’s been on the drug for nearly 10 years—to consider that Kanye might actually welcome this speculation, no matter how stereotypical, pointless, stigma-reinforcing. As he raps in “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1": “Everybody gon’ say something/ I’d be worried if they said nothing.” Kanye West is quite aware of the value of controversy in the press—he is a member of the Kardashian family, after all. He is presumably willing to risk something of his wellbeing for fame.
But it’s not just Kanye West’s wellbeing at stake here. As of 2011, one in 11 Americans were taking some type of antidepressant. Every one of them, of us, has been armchair diagnosed in public for our behavior. Kanye may not care if you tweet about his medication levels, but the rest of us do.
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