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Opinion: 'Our reaction to Kanye West's breakdown feeds cycle of judgement and scorn'

Mental health issues are still taboo when you see the reaction to Kanye West’s recent hospitalisation, writes Vicky Kavanagh.

Vicky Kavanagh

IT’S OKAY NOT to be okay. Please talk. Reach out.

These are the core beliefs of mental health organisations here in Ireland, including one I volunteer for as an ambassador.

Over the last number of years there has been a mental health movement the likes of which our country has never seen before. We’ve asked people to talk, to share their stories, to ask for help, to shatter the stigma.

We wear green ribbons, take part in marathons and tell our friends that it’s okay if you have a mental health condition.

But is it really? Do we actually mean it?

Earlier this week, news broke that Kanye West had been taken to hospital, suffering from dehydration and “exhaustion” – the PR term oft used to cover a multitude of mental and physical difficulties.

It came a few days after some strange and troubling behaviour: from paranoid rants about former friends of the rapper to incoherent ramblings about the recent US election.

I’ve watched as the world, both at home and abroad, reacted. I’ve been taken aback at the quickness and eagerness of people to first mock a man, who seems to be experiencing a breakdown, and then shame and judge him.

What kind of message does this send to anyone with a mental health difficulty scrolling through their newsfeed, seeing the cruel jokes on Twitter, watching as the same media outlets that applaud when somebody shares their story of recovery – only to tear down somebody else for their current struggle.

We only respond positively when that story is in the past

shutterstock_247764778 Source: Shutterstock/igorstevanovic

While there has been a verbal avalanche of people in recent years – myself included – speaking about their tough times, their dark days and bleak moments, it is always done retrospectively. That battle is packaged and marketed as one that has been won.

The monster slayed, the victor rode away on the horse into the sunset. The final message is: mental health is important, but my struggle is finished.

Perhaps this is the reason we’re so quick to point and mock when we see a person’s dark days playing out in real-time. Sure, we know that mental health is important and we should look after it and encourage people to talk. But we are unprepared to deal with somebody in the throes of a mental health difficulty.

We repeat these cycles

Remember the treatment Britney Spears got after shaving her head and attacking paparazzi with an umbrella, before being placed under a psychiatric hold?

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Amanda Bynes experienced similar treatment from the public and media in 2013, before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. An article from The Huffington Post at the time opened with: “It’s always sad when stars you used to know and love fall off the deep end. It’s also kind of funny.”

When somebody speaks out and asks for compassion – remember “Leave Britney Alone” guy? – they are also attacked, belittled and beaten, turned into a meme to feed the cycle of judgement and scorn. It’s not okay and it’s not harmless.

What we say and do matters

How is anyone going to feel it’s acceptable to speak up and say “I’m not okay?” when they watch how we react to another person’s most vulnerable and fragile moment?

We are not creating the culture of acceptance that is so desperately needed in a country that has high suicide rates, particularly among our young men.

We are creating a prison of fear. If Kanye West, who has millions of fans, power and influence can be treated in a callous and degrading way, what hope does Joe Smith from Westport have talking to his mates about what he’s been going through?

Vicky Kavanagh is Assistant Producer on Agenda on TV3 and a mental health Ambassador for ReachOut.com. She tweets over at @VickyWrites and is on Instagram @THEREALVICKYKAVANAGH.

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