Kanye West’s erratic behavior and the lingering stigma surrounding mental health

The rapper's hospitalization has started a conversation about mental wellness, but cultural ideas about masculinity prevent many black men from seeking treatment.

by Sydney Sweeney, Staff Columnist

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At a recent concert in San Jose, California, Kanye West expressed support for president-elect Donald Trump and said black people should stop discussing racism. When video of the tirade circulated online, West’s fans were bewildered.

His statements were nonsense. He donated thousands of dollars to Hillary Clinton’s campaign and advocated for the re-election of President Obama in 2014. He credited his infamous VMA outburst to “closet racism,” ranted about the fashion industry’s prejudice toward black men and said George W. Bush did not care about black people.

The rest of the Saint Pablo Tour was cancelled shortly after another show in Sacramento where West ranted about Beyoncé, Jay Z and Hillary Clinton’s neglect for middle America instead of performing. Many fans thought this was not just “Kanye being Kanye” but that something was wrong. A weeklong stay at UCLA Medical Center led to reports that the artist had been diagnosed with acute paranoia and exhaustion, although no official diagnosis has been made public.

People often talk about West in the context of his ego and sometimes shocking behavior, but rarely beyond the scope of his role as an entertainer. Only now has his mental well-being become a topic of conversation.

West’s problems – although more dramatized and public – are not unique. Instead, they bring to light the silence and stigma that often surrounds mental health. His extreme behavior could be a response to unaddressed mental illness.

Some of the criticism levied at West is what can be expected in a society that equates a black man’s mental health with his masculinity. It is what happens when fear and indignity conspire to prevent a black man from taking steps toward addressing mental wellness prior to everything crashing down.

It was considered radical when Kid Cudi publicly addressed his lifelong battle with mental illness via an open letter in October, an announcement unsurprising to anyone who has listened his lyrics.

Cudi said he felt ashamed when he sought treatment for anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. He also said he felt he was “living a lie.”

Shortly thereafter, the hashtag #YouGoodMan ignited a conversation about black mental health awareness. Twitter users expressed their support not only for Cudi but for every black man whose issues of mental health were regarded as burdensome and emasculating.

“Being black means you have to be strong. We’re expected to be beaten down, then hide our scars and rise up,” said Twitter user @MayXVII. In a culture where strength and machismo are assessed by one’s ability to independently “deal with it,” black men have learned to keep it to themselves.

There is no community that this “man up” mantra could be more damaging to. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population. Still, it is risky for a black man to be honest about his emotions despite being so susceptible to mental distress.

Kid Cudi triumphed over his fear of addressing his mental health while West can be looked upon as an example of how perilous succumbing to that type of fear can be. And as staying quiet is synonymous with staying strong in the black community, the public remains unaware of what is really going on with West.

West is still an artist, and like many creative types he has expressed his distress through his art.

His most notable mental health-related composition, “I Feel Like That,” is not very abstract at all (“Do you experience nervousness or shakiness inside, faintness and dizziness? Thoughts of ending your life?”). The song drifted by unreleased, but was featured at the end of the music video for “All Day” that premiered at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year. To this day, the song has no presence on online streaming services.

Regular people, regardless of race or gender, should empathize with Kanye — especially college students. In 2012, an American Psychological Association study found that in comparison to older generations, millennials reported being more irritable and angry from stress. Issues like depression and sleep deprivation also affect young adults more than previous generations.

West’s episode should serve as a wake-up call in a society where the importance of mental wellness is increasingly recognized, yet not quite understood. And as his iconic name graces headlines, people should not shame or criticize him – not as a pop culture icon, not as a black man and certainly not as a person.

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