Azealia Banks: Mental Health and Celebrity

Controversy is the greatest 15 minutes of fame in a society fueled by drama and conflict… and hip hop artist, Azealia Banks, is no stranger to the controversy. Recently, Banks made several derogatory comments towards a musician that gained massive attention. The outrage of her disparaging remarks and hate speech led many to openly criticize her via social media. Banks, an artist familiar with controversy, defended her rants and provided offensive rebuttals to her critics.

Many speculations attributed her behaviors to the presence of a mental illness. Azealia, known for confrontation and political incorrectness, has been repeatedly labeled by social media as “bipolar”. The issue with this pseudo social media diagnosis is that it’s layered in stigma, stereotypes, and miseducation. We’ve chosen to rely solely on the presentation observed from computer screens without spending one moment with her in-person. Within minutes, we’ve completed a full psychological evaluation via Twitter, a process that can take days, if not weeks, for licensed mental health professionals to complete.

But nonetheless, some argue that discussion of her “bipolar disorder” is a positive way for the Black community to have dialogue about mental health. While I agree that mental health is highly stigmatized in the Black community and needs further discussion and support, a dialogue based on stereotypes and social media incidents does not push the Black community towards inclusion and awareness. It is a step closer towards otherness, further miseducation, and increased stigmatization. This is especially likely when our “diagnosis” is paired with phrases like “bipolar bitch”, “psycho”, and “crazy.” It further stigmatizes those who live with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and minimizes their life experiences to a series of social media outbursts with little to no context or exploration of their personal lives.

Furthermore, we fail to address a larger issue in the Black community in which Black Americans are routinely misdiagnosed. The rapid social media diagnosis further exacerbates the issue of Black clients being mislabeled and being directed to heavy medication with limited cultural context or understanding. Instead, normal behaviors are pathologized by mental health practitioners and labeled as problematic and deviant.  This approach constrains the human experience to comply within constricted Eurocentric standards, void of cultural context, and riddled with racial bias. While this is not always the case, we can do significant harm when we place sticky labels onto an individual.

Sadly enough, a mental illness can have “consequences” and negatively impact career, romantic relationships, citizenship, and ability to start a family. For some, the formality of a diagnosis can bring relief and freedom as one recognizes that there is a medical concern. Yet others find a diagnosis to be triggering and shaming. While recent media coverage about Kanye West and Kehlani has more people engaging in dialogue regarding mental health, the conversation needs to shift away from labels and towards forms of support.

At the end of the day, the responsibility of the treatment falls on the clinician and client. Our “two cents” and opinion are irrelevant when they are reeked in judgment and miseducation. While our intentions may be good, our role is not to act as Azealia Bank’s psychologist or anyone else’s for that matter. Instead, we can be mindful of the words we choose to describe her, mental health, and mental illness. Our role is to be a non judgmental ally.

Let’s begin by having these conversations with the people closest to us. Allow yourself to have the difficult conversations about family histories of mental illness. Recognize areas where you’ve fallen short. Instead of retreating to a place of safety, allowing yourself to make that awkward phone call when you notice a friend isolating. It means asking the hard question, “are you having suicidal thoughts?” when a friend post cryptic messages on social media.

In those tender moments, we remind people of their humanity, and how they are not defined by a mental illness. By being human and showing compassion, we allow open discussion to evolve from those small moments. Your care and concern is a huge step towards alleviating shame and embarrassment. Be that change.