Beats, Rhymes and Lows

What Kanye West can teach us about men’s mental health

Recently I was editing a TV commercial with a creative director at the advertising agency where I work. During some down time, talk turned to Kanye West, who last month was incarcerated against his will after an apparent psychotic episode, brought on by exhaustion and stress. ‘I feel very bad about that, but it doesn’t make me hate him any less,’ my colleague said, upon learning the news. ‘That guy just really annoys the shit out of me.’

This is not an uncommon sentiment about the backpack rapper turned culture omnivore. After all, to be a Kanye fan is ultimately to be a member of the Kanye defence counsel by default. But in this particular case, it doesn’t matter to me what your opinion of Kanye West is. What matters to me is that you have an opinion at all.

You can’t rely on much as we round out 2016, but one thing that’s retained consistency throughout this flaming wreck of a year is the power of celebrity. Increasingly dismissed as vacuous wastes of space, superstars serve a critical purpose, one that is usually only brought to light in circumstances such as those that have befallen West; they redefine the parameters of our discourse.

Australia is in the midst of turning a corner on mental health, one driven largely by government investment, media focus and community grassroots initiatives. Still lagging behind in the stakes, however, are men. Our suicide rates are higher, our propensity to seek help lower, especially outside of capital cities. Everyone is doing admirable work, from former footballer Gus Worland to the crew at Movember, but it’ll take a while yet for guys to be fully comfortable talking about their feelings.

One guy who has never had issues in that department is West, one of the most recognisable men on the planet. For better or worse, the rapper frequently deals with issues of heartbreak, grief, loss, race, religion and masculinity in a very public way. Indeed, West’s often-irksome inability to keep his trap shut may well prove to be his greatest gift to our culture. This month, we will unconsciously use West as a byword with which to discuss acute mental health crises openly, an issue that still remains a tricky one to navigate for many Australians. No doubt when he eventually returns to the spotlight, he’ll also have something to say on the subject.

Kanye is not the first celebrity, or even rapper this year to face issues with his mental health. He does, however, possess a level of universality that is rare, even in era of meme celebrity, which births new stars from anyone with a shtick and a smart phone. What he says carries extraordinary weight, both when he’s being honest and when he’s being a git. You’re as unlikely to forget his statements about George Bush in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as you are his crassness toward Taylor Swift.

These incidents, admittedly awful for the parties involved, conversely offer a tangible benefit to wider society. They give us a reference point, or even a starting one to interrogate our attitudes towards a particularly taboo concept. For those of us who do not subscribe to religious theology as stringently as our forebears did, these incidents, taken together, help us to define our moral code. You don’t need to have a thorough understanding of politics, war or history to have a conversation with a stranger about Beyonce’s recent stance on fidelity and feminism. Think about what Rihanna’s travails taught us about how we talk about domestic violence, or Lance Armstrong for testicular cancer.

Those who teach and work in mental health should use unfortunate incidents like these as an opportunity, especially when dealing with youth. Despite being TMZ unicorns, the images of A-level celebrities are still carefully managed by an army of managers, publicists and PAs. As a result, illnesses like those experienced by West rarely seep through the cracks into the public domain.

Young men in their millions idolise Kanye West. The trick now is to get them to empathise with him.