DMX. Demi Lovato. Beyoncé. Lil Durk. Jas Fly. Future. Amy Winehouse. Lil Uzi. Kanye West. Mac Miller.
Our friends, family, and countless others–no one is exempt from struggles with their mental health.
I write this with the heaviest and wariest of hearts. While mourning those who lost their battle with mental illness, I’m thinking deeply of those who struggle to find solid ground in what some call their ‘dance with the devil’.
Art, at its purest, provides a voice for things unspoken. When artists take shared ideas or emotions that we can’t put into words and create beautifully vulnerable bodies of work, they foster a connection. It makes us feel for them. It makes us feel with them.
But as they help mend what’s broken within us, who heals the healer?
“It’s such a beautiful gift to be able to help people. At the same time, you can become a martyr in a way that is so isolating, and I think it just gets to you… I think that to be the poster child of perfection and mental health is a slippery slope.”Sara ‘Sirah’ Mitchell, a friend of Demi Lovato (Dancing With the Devil, YouTube, 2021.)
We revere these people who save our lives with their art; even deify them. We place them on pedestals that make them larger than life, but we forget that they have real lives. Real human lives who also may need saving.
When our favorite artists allow themselves to bleed through their work, we can become like vampires that suck them dry until they’re lifeless. As prolific as these artists are, it’s heartbreaking that their artistry can soothe every troubled mind but their own.
“See, to live is to suffer. But to survive, well, that’s to find meaning in suffering.”- Earl ‘DMX’ Simmons
As DMX’s “Slippin’” flows through my earphones, his pain is too palpable to ignore. The message he sends is quite clear: “I’m in desperate need of better days, and I will numb myself to the pain until I see them.”
Many artists like DMX use their music as a means of catharsis and see themselves as a vessel–dedicating their life’s work to helping people overcome similar issues that trouble them.
What separates DMX from other artists, however, is that he [seemingly] made peace with being a martyr early on in his career if it meant that he’d help someone else persevere.
While that is quite honorable, I wish he didn’t have to sacrifice himself.
It’s an awful catch 22: we don’t want them to suffer, but we’re grateful that they kept us going when nothing else could.
Awareness Is Not Enough
The songs, screenplays, billboards, social media posts, hashtags, etc. are definitely a step in the right direction and should be celebrated. I applaud those who are brave enough to share their struggles and spark dialogue, but it can’t stop there.
Time and time again, we see how just raising awareness is not sufficient. It may feel like changing your profile names and pictures or sending thoughts and prayers is doing something to solve the problem, but it can be counterproductive if that’s the only thing we’re doing.
Listen, I’m guilty of this too–when I feel powerless in solving a major issue, it brings a sense of accomplishment, albeit false, to just shed light on the issue. But, let me make this clear: the destigmatization of mental health is not a replacement for actual policy change.
It’s deeper than the tired “get help,” “reach out,” or “go to therapy“ talking points. If we want to improve and move beyond awareness, everyone needs to understand and abide by two key things:
- Issues with mental health aren’t uncommon. Anyone’s mental health can, and regularly does, fluctuate. We need to identify and be mindful of what causes those ebbs and flows for ourselves and others, as each case is different and complex (emphasis on complex).
- Mental health issues don’t exist in a silo. Yes treatment is important, but we could also make significant strides to improve mental health conditions by tackling almost any other public policy–housing, healthcare, employment, education, take your pick.
In an ideal world, exemplary mental healthcare would be available freely, widely, and quickly. Though [outside of being politically active] we can’t create or change policies dealing with mental healthcare, I challenge you all to show up in small ways for ourselves and the ones we love:
- Step outside yourself and extend grace.
- Be understanding of limitations. On both sides.
- Validate what is said and how it feels. Don’t be dismissive.
- Avoid saying things like “You’ll be fine,” “Be strong,” “Don’t cry,” “Be grateful,” or “Stay positive.”
- Don’t let religion or others’ opinions shame you into silence.
- Leave a kind note.
- Plan a sleepover.
- Go to a rage room.
- Cook a comforting meal.
- Get active, on your own or with company.
- Continue to send invites, even if they don’t show up.
- Don’t always give advice to “fix it”; just listen.
- Ask “how can I help right now?”
- Offer an escape–don’t even speak on mental health at all.
However you choose to show up, just make it count. I’m talking to myself as much as I’m talking to you. We can’t let awareness of mental health issues fall on deaf ears and unchanged behavior.