The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.
I was nearing the end of my freshman year at Spelman College when I discovered that the indestructible Chris Brown was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and PTSD. Until that moment, I thought he was untouchable and it took me by complete surprise that this man was suffering from something that had been so negatively stigmatized in the black community. Little did I know, three years later, Brown and I would be in the same boat. I no longer thought he was untouchable — I thought that I should have been. However, his diagnosis and vulnerability with the public allowed me to respect him more as a human being with a real human condition, which I would later discover would be something I would be assessed for.
When I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, I was on the edge of 21 years old and only a few days shy of my latest suicide attempt. I was scared, sad, defeated and heavy with emotions that I never experienced before. More so than anything, I felt alone. I didn’t really have anyone to connect with about my thoughts. Growing up in a moderately conservative black home with a Christian background, mental illnesses and mental health disparities weren’t real. They were a curse from the devil himself and those negative thoughts were all in my head; a complete figment of my imagination that I should be able to control and whisk away like I am my own fairy godmother. I wanted to explain to my family and my peers that suicidal thoughts, self-harm and negative self-body images would require more healing than prayer, tea and sleep. But, I couldn’t.
I didn’t know my superpower of channeling my past and storytelling about my journey with mental health until I saw someone else incredible tap into theirs. Nearly nine months into my job at Island Records, I launched my personal blog and began to tap into my healing journey through writing about my experiences with my mental health issues. Around the same time, I had connected with a mental health organization called Silence The Shame, which was created by widely respected music industry veteran Shanti Das, and I volunteered to assist with their event in partnership with Universal Music Group. As Das sat on the panel with Charlamagne Tha God, LaTrice Burnette, David Lighty, and others, she shamelessly opened up about her own mental health journey and the devastating loss of her sister a few days before the event.
My heart broke for her in that very moment, but I had this inexplicable empathy for her as though I felt her pain. While I may not have experienced the loss of a sibling, I connected with Das emotionally on levels that did not require a conversation, a hug or a handshake — and it just clicked. My fear of being prosecuted for sharing my narrative with the world was useless and combated by the sheer fact that a woman with Das’ platform could share her story so effortlessly and I was hesitant to start the engine in my metaphorical car. In that moment, I realized a few things: My newly appointed duty was to share my story with others in the vulnerable fashion in which Das delivered hers. I may be one, but I can save many; and that celebrities have an untapped superpower to normalize a conversation about mental health amongst a community that will follow their lead on any account.
From Charlamagne Tha God’s “Shook One” book that delves into him fighting fear and managing anxiety, to Logic and Alessia Cara’s “1-800-273-8255” single that raised awareness about the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, celebrities and influencers are becoming more vocal about the importance of mental health, but there’s more work to be done. As we slowly approach the two month mark in social distancing, we are forced to practice stillness and be with our own thoughts — some of which may include self-hatred, body dysmorphia or suicidal ideations. While everyone is competing amongst their followers for who has the cutest WFH fit or the true #QuarantineCoupleGoals, it may slip our minds to check on the wellbeing of one another. Don’t forget, Instagram is a highlight reel and not necessarily a factual summation of everything going on in someone’s day-to-day.
Let’s take a second to be honest here, important conversations within the mental health community don’t thrive until someone famous speaks out about it or is personally affected by it. By silencing the conversations around mental health, we are giving room for talk about stigmas and negativity, forcing those affected to shut down and feel a sense of shame or discomfort. These stigmas prevent everyday people such as myself from actively seeking the care that we crave and need, which in turn messes all of us up. While mental health professionals like psychotherapists and psychiatrists are obvious advocates for fighting against stigmas, we can’t stop there. We need more. We need people that we turn to as idols and prominent public figures to share their personal experiences with us, so that we may support each other. Please understand that this is not a nudge to put your personal business out there that you’re not comfortable sharing, but an outreach from one human to another that the only way to combat stigma is to talk about it openly.
We turn to artists like Kanye West, and public figures like actress Taraji P. Henson and personality Joe Budden for a great album or a good laugh, but when they drive the conversation toward the topics of healing, therapy and mental health, that’s when it hits us that mental health applies to all. Kid Cudi, JAY-Z, Kendrick Lamar and DMX are examples of celebrities who have vocalized their thoughts on it, and they’ve positively recognized their ability to utilize their visibility to change the lives of others who admire and idolize them. Thus, if we want to have bigger conversations, we must hold others of their caliber accountable and let them know that their power is greater than what they may be using it for. Fortunately, now more than ever, we’re seeing more people in the limelight open up to the public about their mental health issues and experiences with therapy. Truth be told, I gained the courage to tell my mom that I was raped in college after watching Cyn Santana tell Joe Budden about her experience with sexual abuse on “Love and Hip Hop: New York” in front of the entire world. If she could do that to me, imagine what more public figures could do for all of us who struggle with this.
Celebrities and influencers (micro and macro), you have the capacity to raise public awareness that we need in order to put an end to the criminalization of the mentally ill. You have the power to speak out against the lack of mental health resources in our public school systems. You can spare ten minutes of your day assuring us that it’s okay not to be okay because you don’t know whose life you may touch or even save. Shanti Das didn’t save my life, but she did give me courage. Imagine if we all just gave one person courage. Our support system within one another would expand exponentially. Custom Fashion Nova codes, DIY face masks and cooking with bae TikToks are great scrollable content for my explore page, but what we really need are mental wellness check-ins and reassurance that we’re all in this together.
One of the most effective methods of breaking the stigma is a tangible experience with a person’s truth; an account or story of lived experience. Face-to-face interactions don’t have to be in person, but are now in the palm of your hand, and accessible at any time with Facebook Live, Instagram stories, and other social platforms on the rise. Especially as a black culture, we see before our eyes that popular culture is shifting our way of addressing mental health and influencing our way of thinking, coping and healing. Let’s change our attitudes together and reduce the stigma by sharing our own stories, providing resources, demonstrating compassion and educating one another on correct terminology.