The recent hospitalisation of Kanye West has – like anything he does – split the general public in two. Some believing it’s all staged and “just another ploy for attention” whilst the other half believe it’s legitimate and actually accounts for a lot of his recent actions. So this got me thinking. How many musicians, artists and actors alike has the world lost due to unrecognised mental illness? How much of constantly being in the public eye actually has to do with these celebrity breakdowns we constantly see? From suicide, to alcohol and drug abuse problems, how deep does the correlation of being ill and famous – or famously ill – go?
Kanye West has had quite the year. The everlasting drama with Taylor Swift, the manic tweets, that almost possessed display of insanity of The Ellen DeGenerous Show, breakdowns at his own concerts, his wife being held at gun point in Paris (and that totally inappropriate halloween costume that followed).. he has the life that would cause even the sanest amongst us to break down. But he does it with 24/7 world surveillance. Kanye was admitted to the UCLA Medical Centre in Los Angeles just before Thanksgiving 2016 suffering from “temporary psychosis due to sleep deprivation and dehydration”, according to TMZ. So what was the cause of his spiral? A question we might have to ask ourselves here, is why we needed to know every inch of his story so far anyway. Humans where gifted as the only mammals on earth (parrots are irrelevant) gifted with the ability to speak, and we choose to abuse our powers by constant bitching and gossiping. Even when people are hospitalised we still see fit to speculate and assume things that are only portrayed to us through television screens and tweets. So what has this got to do with mental illness?
According to the NHS, each year in the UK, 3 in 100 people are believed to suffer with at least one episode of psychosis in their lifetime with a estimation of 1 in 5 people with psychosis will attempt to commit suicide in their lifetime. When it comes to depression, around 4% of children aged five to 16 in the UK are believed to be anxious or depressed by the NHS. Even with percentages like these, dismissing mental illness is easier than addressing it, and when you’re in the public eye – and have been from a young age – vultures otherwise known as ‘the media’ will sink their talons in order to find the perfect story. Speaking to a representative from the Mail Online, I asked if being respectful of mentally ill celebrities was something they considered important when it comes to writing their entertainment/news pieces. Surprisingly enough, I received no answer.
Another publication that has ‘ruining lives’ in its resume: The Sun. On 22nd January 2008, a 19 minute video accumulated by The Sun was accompanied by a news story simply titled “Amy Winehouse on crack”. The very poetic tagline read “WILD AMY WINEHOUSE was filmed blitzed out of her skull and struggling to talk after sucking in crack fumes from a glass pipe.” As expected, the story blew up across tabloids western-world-wide, with it becoming breaking news on TV shows such as BBC, Channel 4, and ITV news. But was the video leaked to help? It could be said that by this point, Winehouse was beyond saving. But this video – which has The Sun’s logo emblazoned in the top right corner – was released with one thing in mind – and that was profit. The Sun had landed on a gold mine here. Now it could be said (if only by The Sun’s sympathisers) that the release of this video was to help show awareness of the dangerous and life destroying effects of drugs. But imagine the psyche of an already troubled, drug fuelled mind that from a young age, was a household name. Now imagine that same mind (on what would be a fairly severe comedown) after seeing this video plastered on every TV screen across the country. Your thoughts wouldn’t be “Gee the public is right, I need to shape myself up!”. It would be “I’m a mess and everyone knows it so why bother stopping.” According to the drug awareness website Talk To Frank, when the effects of cocaine start to wear off, “people experience a long ‘comedown’, when they feel depressed and run down. This crash can happen for days afterwards.” So when does the media’s savage reporting become murderous?
Perhaps the most obvious case study to delve into for this particular question would be that of the infamous 27 Club, that boasts members such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and of course Amy Winehouse. For those who aren’t aware of The 27 Club, it’s as simple as it sounds. Musicians and artists alike that all died at the tender age of 27. The stigma of the club has been previously brought to life through books, TV shows, songs, and even a (shit) movie. While the theories behind the mysterious club are all as fascinating as the last, the dark truth behind nearly a third of its member’s demises all share a common denominator: Mental illness.
Speaking to Eric Segalstad, co-creator of ‘The 27s—The Greatest Myth of Rock & Roll’ , I asked him if, through his 3 and a half year research on The 27 Club, he found there to be any correlation between illness and celebrity status. “It’s an interesting question. The short answer is yes, I think there’s a greater chance that someone famous/an artist/musician is at times more mentally unstable than the rest of the population. True artists are immersed in their feelings, tapping into their psyche to create art. That practice coupled with the intense media pressure, fan pressure, and internal pressure I believe can lead to moments of instability and likely also insanity. While I can’t prove it, it’s a statement based on my research into The 27s as well as talking with, observing, and interacting with accomplished artists and musicians. I’m not suggesting that media is solely responsible for causing mental issues, but I do think we have seen enough cases on media making the situation worse.”
As Segalstad said, it may be that “being famous can make you ill” is a bold statement to make, but it would be ignorant to dismiss even the possibility of it being truth. So by accepting the issue here, what can be done? Some of you elders may remember the first singer to ever win Eurovision for the UK, and you’ll be pleased to know nowadays she is doing something more fulfilling with her time. Sandie Shaw, a success of the 60’s, now runs Barefoot Therapy, The Arts Clinic. The clinic is dedicated to helping and developing the well being and creative potential of people working in creative industries with problems such as drinking, drugs, and simply being overwhelmed. I asked her if she believed there to be the direct connection. “There is no direct connection between fame and mental illness. But if there is a predilection towards mental illness then the environment which is extremely stressful and demanding can exacerbate it. The main difficulty is with young people who are still developing their sense of self and negotiating their place with their peers and in the wider world. They get a false sense of reality reflected back at them and often develop unhealthy ways of coping with this distortion.”
While there might be no sure way for the media and public to really help these situations, places like Shaw’s clinic are vital to the creative industry. Unlike just seeing a doctor or a therapist, these places help to provide an environment that is safe, undemanding and realistic to explore the underlying problems, and introduce healthy coping strategies accordingly. Shaw continues: “Are there ways in which the public/media can help? Not really. The public demands and recipient responds. It is a choice on both sides. A two way dance of ego and projection. I only deal with the recipient and I endeavour to encourage them to think of self care as their responsibility and a duty to their talent and their wellbeing.”
So, can being famous make you ill? There is enough evidence to prove this true, but it will never be a simple “yes” or “no”. What needs to be taken into account is the individual: whether their lifestyle is healthy or not, the people they surround themselves with, and the past they might’ve had.
So Kanye, you might want to apologise to Taylor for making that bitch famous.
Words by Laura Copley