Is Kanye West Crying Out For Help? Investigating Hip-Hop & Mental Health

Picture the moment the late Michael Jackson once dangled his infant son over a balcony above a crowd of stunned paparazzi and common spectators and replay it like a clockwork loop every other day or so. That would be the shock reaction repeatedly brought to you by the recent inexplicable behavior of Kanye West.

On the surface it appears to some critics that West’s mental health has taken a nosedive. Over the past weeks his bizarre antics have set ablaze the internet on several occasions: Twitter beefs and rants, the haphazard Bill Cosby declaration of innocence, the twice-changed album name (which was subsequently finalized as The Life of Pablo), publicly begging billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for cash—just to name a handful of instances—all fragments of seemingly random and at times uncalculated behavior.

But with the timing of these public theatrics, falling into place just prior to West’s (unofficial) album release, one has to wonder if these acts are actually not random and in fact very carefully calculated. To this question, it can be said that before the crate-and-megaphone approach West has taken to the public that the buzz surrounding The Life of Pablo wasn’t nearly as big until his public displays of unexplainable behavior started flooding media headlines. But now the attention surrounding this album has successfully reached nearly immeasurable proportions.

Is what we’re witnessing from Kanye an unfortunate 2011 Charlie Sheen-esque series of mental brouhaha fit for an “SNL” comedy segment? Or is he exploiting the fact that much of the public is aware of his inner struggles, shamelessly utilizing this as a platform for a warped, caricature of a marketing campaign?

The world may never know. But discussion has been circulating about the psychological instability of ‘Ye since his mother passed away back in 2007 — he even directly addressed both suicide and his depression on his 2012 song “Clique.” Additionally, Rhymefest, long time collaborator of Kanye, recently expressed concern for the mental health of his cohort.

“My brother needs help in the form of counseling,” Rhymefest responded to a Twitter commenter. “Spiritual and mental. He should step away from the public and ‘yesmen’ and heal.”

Yeezy would probably never admit to needing any kind of intervention — if any is needed. And such is the case for countless individuals suffering from mental illness today… primarily those in minority communities.

Unbeknownst to many, black Americans do suffer from depression and a host of other mental disturbances just like any other racial or ethnic group, but often don’t seek help. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, whites are more than twice as likely to receive antidepressant treatments than blacks. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that although black women are more likely to report depression than their white counterparts, only 7.6% sought help compared to 13.6% nationally. And further, only one quarter of blacks that are suffering from mental illness obtain treatment, compared to 40% of whites, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The reasons for this vary, but denial and embarrassment are rampant antagonists faced by many black Americans with mental problems, widely due to the “only the strong survive” mentality historically cast upon this particular group. Cost of treatment and lack of adequate insurance are also cited to be insurmountable barriers, in conjunction with mistrust of health professionals and lack of education on the subject.

The CDC also states that blacks have a higher rate of severe depressive symptoms than whites, and that blacks and Hispanics have higher rates of mild and moderate depressive symptoms than whites. More than 15% of those living below the poverty line had depression compared to 6.2% of people living at or above the poverty level.

Native/Aboriginal rapper Jamie Prefontaine, aka Brooklyn, was a notable figure in the Canadian hip-hop scene. As one of the faces of the former group Winnipeg’s Most and later YSMG, Prefontaine allegedly committed suicide in September of 2015 at just the age of 30.

Although Prefontaine was Canadian, the internal battles faced by individuals across all Native tribes between both the United Sates and Canada remain eerily similar and often go unnoticed, uncared for, and, consequently, unaddressed and underreported. According to a 2015 report from the CDC, suicide amongst Native Americans is the 2nd leading cause of death between the ages of 10 and 34. The suicide rate among Natives between ages 15 and 34 is 1.5 times higher than the national average within that group, although the Native American racial group represents just 1.2% of the US population.

And the pervasive belief that blacks don’t take their own lives could not be more wrong. CDC figures illustrate that suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for black males between 15-24. It’s also the 3rd leading cause of death for Hispanic males in that same age group.

Singer Houston, who had a 2004 hit with the Chingy and Nate Dogg-assisted “I Like That,” gouged his eye out in a London hotel room back in 2005. His bodyguard, who discovered him, stated “he said he had to get the devil off his back and that’s the only way he could kill the devil.”

Houston’s case sounds like an episode strongly aligned with signs of schizophrenia — a severe mental disorder that causes vivid hallucinations (including voices), delusions, and a wide array of other behavioral disruptions — some of which result in bodily harm and other acts of violence. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that 7.9 million Americans suffer from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and 40% of those with schizophrenia go untreated every year.

It is believed that black males are 4 to 5 times more likely to be diagnosed with this disorder than any other group. However, in-depth studies for blacks with schizophrenia are not widely accessible, and the few statistical facts that are provided are often disputed due to suspicion of over diagnosing.

Back in 1991, Bushwick Bill of The Geto Boys coerced his girlfriend into helping him commit suicide. As a result of that, the then heavily intoxicated rapper, who says he looked in the mirror and laughed at himself after the incident, was left with one eye. Although the MC has no known mental illness, surely alcohol couldn’t have been the only factor in this incident. “I was a homicidal maniac with suicidal tendencies,” he told KUSF’s Billy Jam in an interview the year it occurred.

But who’s to say that Bushwick Bill has not been diagnosed? Mental instability in the black community is often a secret problem cast upon countless households. These issues tend to go completely ignored or dismissed as something else other than the chemical imbalances and genetic factors that often control the force of mental disturbances. For instance, the blame game is a common justification often used to explain away outlandish behavior:

“Fame can make you crazy,” Bushwick Bill said in regards to Houston’s aforementioned eye gouging incident — an obvious example of dismissing the idea of existing mental illness and its true culprit.

Bipolar disorder — also known as manic depression — has a two-headed component. With this particular illness, bouts of exhilaration and euphoria fluctuate — sometimes quickly — with periods of withdrawal and extreme depression. According to Mental Health America, it affects all racial and ethnic groups evenly, but once again, the statistical fact that blacks are far less likely to seek help rings true here.

Rapper DMX once told ABC15 during an interview that his struggle with bipolar disorder had taken away his ability to separate the rapper and the off-stage version of himself. “I used to be really clear on who was what and what character each personality had… But at this point I’m not even sure if there is a difference.”

Like DMX, Kanye seems to have recently depicted the faces of several different characters — to the point where he has, at times, come off as an obnoxious panhandler walking against traffic during the busiest hour, begging to be seen and heard by everyone in his path. But if these episodes are indeed a sincere cry for help, he should know that he is not alone in his struggles with depression. Kid Cudi is known to have been combating the strains of this illness. And for years, Joe Budden has been a victim to the ills of this disorder, parts of which can be heard in detail on his song “Only Human.” His adolescent writings are said to have been scattered with etches of gothic sentiments and suicide.

“Depression is killing more than ever, “ Budden once stated via Twitter, “yet still it remains the largest elephant in the room.”

When will hip-hop wake up?

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