Public Displays of Depression: Mental Illness in the Current Fabric of Pop Culture

On the importance of normalizing discussion about the disorder through the visible platforms of celebrity and fashion.

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A beautiful thing, life is, but there are times when the uglier parts of it peek out behind a curtain, and at some point we’re forced to confront the bad that the good parts fail to keep hidden in the dark. This is what happened on the evening of Friday April 21 after Kid Cudi got online to openly address his depression and accompanying suicidal thoughts — something he has touched on in the past.

Cudi was once praised for being a sonically progressive artist, his sound being one music had not heard before. He earned the cosign from Kanye West, whose own catalog hears clear influence from the man also known as Scott Mescudi. But then he fell into a pit of obscurity. The light dimmed while he struggled with depression and a drug addiction. Persevering through the darkness, he delivered Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven, his fifth studio album, which failed to clamor fanfare like the ones that came before it. Though the numbers were disparaging, the project held incredible personal significance for him and his mental state. He would eventually see redemption with the release of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, and all he had to do was let out his discernibly ethereal moan — the classic Cudi hum that ascends from down in his diaphragm to take us all to church if only for 20 seconds – but not before dealing with the criticisms on his own project.

Speedin’ Bullet was my last outing as the dark, depressing character that people place me as,” he told Billboard later addressing how he used substances like cocaine as a means to “fix” his depression. “I needed to get that out of me and that was the only way I could do it.” And on April 22, as most of our minds on the east coast were lingering far away from our desks with thoughts of the warm weather and weekend just minutes ahead of quitting time, the same day that Billboard interview was shared, Cudi got on Twitter to say how under-appreciated he’s felt and adding, “I think about blowin my brains out a handful [of] times a week, I fear no one. I gives no fucks. I’m a warrior in hell.”

Getting those dark, depressing parts of one’s self out is not something most people who struggle with depression feel brave enough to do. Instead, society has taught us to suppress those feelings — interestingly enough, one of the biggest takeaways in the headlines following what Cudi tweeted has to do with he said about an upcoming album, rather than his battle with mental illness — often out of fear of that admitting to the demons that call our innermost thoughts home would earn us a scarlet letter. Every once in awhile, though, that ugliness rears its head on a big stage that’s leveraged by a celebrity platform for all to see and confront, whether we want to or not, and such is the case with not just Cudi.

Cut to last October when Cara Delvingne made headlines following an interview in which she addresses her suicidal thoughts and the depression she’s been struggling with after being diagnosed at 15. “I got to the point where I went a bit mad,” the 23-year-old revealed. “I was completely suicidal, I didn’t want to live any more.” Fast forward to March when the model, whose eyebrows have become synonymous with her free-essence and ability to find insurmountable success in an industry in which she doesn’t fit the traditional, cookie-cutter mold, penned a personal essay on feeling so unhappy she took a step back from it all, and then followed up with a string of tweets about the self-hatred she’s had in the past – using her own celebrity in hopes that anyone who has ever felt the same knows they are not the only one struggling.

And then there was last month, when Kehlani succumbed to those same aforementioned sentiments after the Twittersphere descended upon her like an eagle on its prey because of gossip on drama in her love life. The jokes flew, but it was all fun and games until someone got hurt. That someone would be the singer herself, who shared via Instagram a picture from a hospital bed, saying she “wanted to leave this earth,” presumably because of the weight of public humiliation. At only 21 years old, R&B’s Grammy-nominated rising star almost lost her light, but the implication of this was upstaged with questions about her authenticity as statements to the tunes of how-sad-can-she-be-if-she’s-posting-pictures and why-would-she-even-share-that-online began circulating. However, Kehlani is a celebrity who perhaps, at the time, felt like that was a necessary means of communicating whatever it is she was/is dealing with to her fans. She used her platform. Also, we live in a climate where nearly nothing is off-limits in online discourse.

Except for mental health and matters of depression and suicide. That causes the audience to stop, stunned for just a second — overwhelmingly in disapproval — before moving on.

What do you think we hear as the soundtrack to this present time as we turn on the radio and sign onto Spotify? It’s Future, of course, arguably one of the most popular rappers right now. But listen to one of his songs and really listen, not to the Metro-Boomin-produced beats, but to the lyrics themselves. Because beyond rapping about Styrofoam cups filled with Sprite laced with lean, a lot of the messages in his catalog are laced with depression.

Wash the molly down with champagne/ Wash the xanny down with syrup/ Hope it take away all this damn pain

His inescapable songs that follow us on playlists, at every outing, are laden with despondence oft ignored because those beats are just that damn good. Perhaps for Future, just like with Cudi, his music is a privilege, a necessary outlet and a means to allow others who identify — those who may lack their own medium in which they feel safe enough to express themselves — to know they aren’t alone. Yet what sounds like cries for help are drowned out. We hear Future, but do we really?

Lest we forget, there’s the wardrobe. We’ve entered an era where it’s almost in to be down. Somehow wearing emotions on your sleeves has become hype — but only ever so elusively because apparently mental illness is not a thing people should actually own up to possessing. Case in point, Anti Social Social Club – the name alone is oxymoronic. Why is it so popular? Well, dare we say that its message, at its core, is all too relatable? And if we do, what does that say about us? Founder Neek Lurk hasn’t shied away in sharing that it’s his agony fostering his creativity. His experiences are his own, but those feelings of despair, as singular as they feel to him or any other person who has them, are rather universal. Yes, there are those who buy his highly-sought after offerings just to buy, but you’d be remiss in failing to acknowledge the connection some fans have to the sentiments behind Neek’s work.

Wear one of his sweaters and you, someone who self-identifies as weird or alone or an outcast, are a part of this society, but only in secret because who really wants to confess to isolation? The reality that ASSC imposes wearers to think about their personal truths, is folded neatly away into a pitch-black corner.

Therein lies the problem. According to a newly released study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate has been rising in the United States since 1999, 2014 seeing a comparative increase of 24 percent. The National Institute of Mental Health names major depressive disorder as “one of the most common mental disorders” in the country, affecting about seven percent of the population. And yet for something so common, society has mostly idly watched, not loosening the grip of the stigma surrounding mental illness that’s so startlingly tight, it’s as if it’s a thing that doesn’t even exist — let alone should be openly talked about, taboo. But then enters that lingering loneliness that forces millions — 14.8 million according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America – to suffer in silence. Pay enough attention, though, and we’ll see a glimmer of it exposed in the spotlight, exactly where it should be and stay until discussion about depression is normalized rather than hushed. Until then, may these public displays continue to light the way.

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