Kanye West is melting down. He didn’t perform to expectations at two concert dates, declaring, at one, that he would have voted for Donald Trump for President and generating boos for his statement. In a subsequent concert he performed just a couple of songs, and abruptly ended a performance that should have lasted at least an hour. A couple of days later, he was hospitalized in a “psychiatric hold.” Some say he is simply exhausted, sleep-deprived and stressed. Some say it is more. His mother, Dr. Donda West, died in November 2007. Nine years later, is he especially vulnerable to outbursts and erratic behavior on that anniversary? In any case, even as many of us have admired Kanye West as a boldly audacious entertainer, we are also concerned about his very public meltdown and its implications.
African American people don’t pay enough attention to the challenges that mental health issues face. We are more likely than Whites to experience mental health challenges, but far less likely than Whites to seek help. We minimize mental health challenges, laughing and calling those who are challenged crazy and cray-cray (I confess, I do this from time to time). We don’t respond to their very public cry for help. Yes, Kanye West was crying for help. His inappropriate public behavior could have been interpreted as an ask for someone to take him, hold him, comfort him, hear him. Instead, he had a challenging concert schedule, a schedule that would have brought him millions of dollars. Cancelling the schedule may have saved his health, but it has cost him millions of dollars. Imagine the pressure he must have felt; he might have thought, “Can I go on and save the day? Must I step aside and take a hit?”
Most African Americans who face mental health challenges face some of the same concerns Kanye West must have. If you share your mental anguish, you are cray-cray, the object of jokes and ridicule. If you hide it, you are eaten alive by an anguish that forces you to say “fine,” or “okay,” when people ask you how you are doing. Just like we tell people to take an annual physical, to feel their breasts for lumps, to get the prostate check, we need to encourage folks who are a bit erratic to check in with their doctors about their mental health.
We don’t do that and, indeed, many health plans limit access to mental health professionals. But the mental health status of African Americans too often collides with the law enforcement system when “erratic” behavior on the part of some African Americans is seen as simply criminal. People who are mentally ill and need help are too often incarcerated or killed because some police forces lack the tools to manage a mental health crisis that is likely growing.
Consider the case of Anthony Hill, a naked and unarmed Atlanta Air Force veteran who was acting erratically in his apartment complex in early March. Someone called 911, because a naked man was knocking on doors and “acting deranged.” When DeKalb police officer Robert Olsen encountered Hill, he asked him to stop, and when he did not, he was shot twice. Mr. Hill didn’t have a weapon, and anybody who is hanging out naked is clearly mentally impaired. Meanwhile, Officer Olsen had a Taser, but he chose to use his gun, but he chose to use his gun against a naked, weaponless man.
Olsen was charged with murder and indicted and, in October, was ordered to stand trial. The trial may begin late this year or early next year. Meanwhile, it is significant to note that Anthony Hill was believed to be bipolar, and suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. He served our country in Afghanistan, and tried unsuccessfully to get an appointment, and some help, from the veteran affairs hospital in Atlanta. Might the outcome of his erratic episode have been different if mental health professionals, not a trigger-happy officer, were deployed to intervene?
Should mental illness be a death sentence? It was for Anthony Hill, and for many others who don’t get the help they need. Even as the incoming President attempts to reverse some aspects of the Affordable Care Act, conscious health advocates must insist that mental health coverage is as important as physical health coverage. It is disgraceful that a veteran should be shot, because his mental illness got the better of him. It is disgusting that dozens of others who are unarmed and mentally ill are shot, because people untrained to manage mental illness are sent to communities, gun ready, and oblivious to alternatives.
And it is disturbing that Kanye West is melting down in plain sight, drowning his pain in angry vitriol. When can we, African Americans, talk about the mental health crisis that exists in our community? It isn’t going to get better, as hate crime escalates and swastikas begin to adorn our city walls. Some of us will want to fight, and others will be driven to despair. We must speak of mental health and healing, and we must speak of it often. One of Kanye West’s colleagues, 9th Wonder said, “Been knowing the brother upwards of 13 years. Mental healing is a serious thing, no matter what. Stay strong Kanye West.” Ashe’.