It’s easy to dismiss Kanye West‘s social media rants as “crazy” behavior or “just being Kanye.” It’s easy to laugh. It’s easy to judge. What’s hard? Trying to help.
His wife, Kim Kardashian West, refutes claims that he is having a mental health issue. But it’s challenging to get a handle on what’s going on when anyone— a celebrity or loved one— acts in a way that feels like a full-on breakdown. And let’s say it, the term mental illness is heavy. It makes sufferers feel less than. It feels impossible to beat. It feels embarrassing to admit. But at this point, it shouldn’t be. Most people have heard of, witnessed or directly experienced a mental health issue. It’s as much a part of human illness as colds and cancer. The silence, blind eye and condescending approach pop culture reserves for mental health issues is a death sentence for the 43 million dealing with them, many of whom may feel like they are carrying that load alone—and often in secret. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five Americans deal with mental illness in any given year. Everyone is affected. Families. Co-workers. Neighbors. But very few people are willing to talk about it. That’s why the organization is using #CureStigma to promote Mental Health Awareness Month for the next 31 days.
You can’t fight, cope or beat something you pretend doesn’t exist. There are countless stories of people who go without help, ignore early signs of breakdowns or stop taking medication because of stigma. Dismantling it requires honest discussion.
Mental health issues don’t look exactly the same on different people, but there’s hope.
Let’s address what mental illness really is. NAMI defines mental illness as a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feelings or mood. There are many diagnoses that ultimately fall into this bucket, including depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. It looks different on everyone. Some folks will have lifelong day-to-day battles, while others may experience cyclical issues. And there are those who will have rare psychotic episodes.
Then there’s that real sense of powerlessness that occurs during these episodes. Frankly, watching a loved one suffer is devastatingly unpredictable, and painful. When someone has a physical ailment we can usually deduce, with some level of accuracy, whether the individual will heal or die. Even the worst outcome gives some semblance of control because you know what to expect. Mental health issues don’t work that way. There are many variables that contribute to how an individual copes, from personal choice to accurate diagnosis, and the lack of predictability can be physically and emotionally draining. The inability to create a curable resolution can also make avoidance easier.
Unfortunately, ignoring a problem doesn’t solve it.
At some point, you will realize someone you care about has coped with a mental health issue. Support looks different depending on the circumstance. You can’t control how a person copes, but you can help create an environment where people aren’t ashamed to get help. You do this by pushing yourself to look at mental health without labels. You do this by normalizing therapeutic interventions (working with social workers and psychiatrists) so people don’t feel the need to hide their need for support. You do this by familiarizing yourself with the signs of persistent mental health issues and connecting loved ones with help. You do this by letting go of embarrassment, fear and assumptions (Kanye included).
Mental health issues don’t look exactly the same on different people, but there is hope for all parties involved. Use Mental Health Awareness Month to #CureStigma.
S. Tia Brown is a journalist and licensed therapist.