Over this past weekend, I perceived one of my fundamental understandings of mental illness to be challenged. I watched as someone posted about their active suicidal ideations on social media, bare for all to see, and got a near-unanimously positive reaction. Every article, tweet, comment section that I read was heaping on the comfort and praise. I echoed their sentiments, but something struck me as slightly off. Isn’t there supposed to be a stigma around these things? How is this reaction so positive?
To start, I want to voice my pure love for Pete Davidson. I’ve found loads to relate to as he has woven mental illness into his career, cracking jokes about his journey on the big stage, Saturday Night Live (or for me, Sunday Morning on Youtube). He’s objectively a good comedian, especially in the young, upcoming talent realm. I watched him go through his relationship with his fellow Slytherin, Ariana Grande, with starry, envious eyes and respected him for how he handled the breakup. Every statement he put out was cognizant of both his and Grande’s life and privacy, and when mentally ill and heartbroken, that’s no easy task. He’d seemed to hold it together well after such a whirlwind news cycle for him.
Then came this weekend. I saw the Instagram post a few minutes after it went up, and had to double take to make sure I saw it right. It appeared to be a public suicide note. Davidson wrote that he “really didn’t want to be on this Earth anymore,” among other things that prompted an outpouring of support and a NYPD wellness check to his workplace. My heart aches as it imagines what’s swirling about his head right now, and I don’t have to imagine for very long to understand.
When my PTSD was at its worst and I was deeply suffering, I’d sometimes post messages on my Snapchat account that were cryptic enough not to raise alarm bells but that were expressions of the pain that I was feeling. Many featured loud white noise that I’d play at full volume to drown out thoughts and memories I was experiencing. Some were just black screens, others black with one sad emoji or image. Some were pictures of trauma-relevant R.H. Sin poetry (as I always say, R.H. Sin is great for crises and flaming garbage for anything else), black and white filter and all. Never did I type out precisely what I was experiencing like Davidson did, but I am no stranger to the urge to express dark thoughts on social media.
Circling back to the assumed stigma of social media and mental illness, I’ve had to do some thinking to come to a good understanding of why this situation with Davidson didn’t play out like last-week Olivia would have imagined. Yes, it may be partially that Davidson is a sympathetic figure, given his career and personality. Yes, it is objectively a sympathy-deserving event. Just not in the public eye, not usually. Why wasn’t he being laughed at, shunned, eye rolled, like I would hate to see but had come to expect?
Let’s take a look at some other mentally ill public figures.
Robin Williams got a similar reception after news of his suicide broke. Tributes went out, tears were shed on air, and everyone born before the dawn of the century mourned the loss of their childhood genie. This is all as it should be; sure, suicide contagion is always a risk, but there is no more or less shame in death by suicide than by any other manner, and it should be treated with the same level of respect, before it is considered for further measures (to limit contagion).
Williams’ struggle seems pretty similar. He’s a popular, male, white actor whose body of work was well gazed upon and who had never gathered public ire due to acting out on the basis of his illness. He was sick in the shadows, in corners and shoved into ancient lamps. When he died, it was easy to mourn him and curse his illness because that illness wasn’t disturbing or socially unacceptable before he died. Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade were given the same treatment.
As I considered the different variables of public mental illness and suicide, it struck me that there were two different issues I was trying to combine into one.
In a sense, the reaction to Pete Davidson signifies social growth. Undeniably, the mentally ill are not typically given passes until they are gone, for their behavior is seen by others as too weird to be sympathetic. Davidson’s post definitely got a bit of heat, as did his criticism of Dan Crenshaw a few months ago, but all in all he seems to have gotten a “good” public reaction, good in this sense meaning one that didn’t turn on him. Many celebrities, from Nicki Minaj to Machine Gun Kelly and to Ariana Grande herself, voiced support for him. He was given a little tribute in the SNL appearance, in one of the pre-taped skits. He’s getting help, and the public wanted it for him in a way most other suicidal celebrities had only gotten after they’d passed.
In another light, and simultaneously, Davidson is also emblematic of what is means to be a socially acceptable mentally ill person. He’s not an addict, has no arrest history (that we know of). He’s white, good looking, in a commonly respectable job as a comedian. It’s easy for him to be the celebrity that the public can get behind in the face of a mental health slip.
Now, let’s take Kanye West for a spin. West has been vocal about his experience with Bipolar Disorder, and like Davidson, he’s worked it into his career by rapping and singing about his struggles. Now, there’s plenty of valid Kanye criticism, particularly from communities of color. His support of Trump and various twitter tirades are cringeworthy at best and heartbreaking betrayals at worst. That being said, the flack he’s gotten in the media for the behaviors that are clearly direct consequences of his illness has been hard to watch.
As has been the case since the dawn of art, artists and creators who are ill can create some of the most vibrant and complex works. When they do so, and I’m looking out my window at the Starry Night as I write this, their works are lauded while their mentally ill behavior that accompanies it is shamed and separated from the work. The public wants Kanye at his most energized, but only when he can churn out a hit song, not when he goes on tirades and meets with…. undesirable political figures, not when he’s at his lowest nor when he’s at his highest, as the Bipolar cycle of mania and depression will activate. Throw in his race and his rap title and you’ve got the perfect storm of a mix for a figure who will draw extreme public ire for their mental illness while heartthrob singer Shawn Mendes, by contrast, will be lauded for the bravery of a song about his generalized anxiety.
In sum, Pete Davidson’s whirlwind weekend is both a signal of what perhaps may turn out to be a societal shift in reaction to public mental illness, and a highlight of what makes a mentally ill person publicly palatable. I would encourage both you and the general public to take time to consider that mental illness is almost never packaged pretty, and you’ll be disturbed by public displays of it and should be compassionate in the face of that disturbance, for folks’ illnesses can’t be helped any more than any physical illness can be, from the common cold to cancer.
I encourage you to Google the name Brandon Marshall, and if you know me you’ll immediately understand him to be the Google result of the former New York Jets RB. He’s been very vocal about his struggle with mental health, specifically with Borderline Personality Disorder, an illness he shares with Davidson. He’s a good example of a public figure who’s actively defying stereotypes of what a good mentally ill person should look like, and using that defiance to raise awareness and do public good. It’s no wonder I chose his name to emblazon the back of my first ever professional sports-related jersey.