OPINION | It is time to stop picking on celebs with mental health issues

“People break personal boundaries. They tend to think that they are people and celebrities are not... Like we are not same and don’t bleed like them.”

08 February 2019 - 07:25
Depression is no laughing matter.
Depression is no laughing matter.
Image: 123RF / 9nong

Social media was busier than Bree taxi rank at home time on a Friday when immigration police came knocking on US musician 21 Savage’s door to arrest him.

While platforms like Twitter and Facebook were filling with memes and jokes, the dark side of social media reared its ugly head.

For a few brief moments, the jokes about 21 Savage became a sideshow for an outright attack on musician Demi Lovato.

Like everyone else, the star shared a meme on the situation, but was soon dragged down for her drug addiction and mental illness.

As much as I am not a fan of Lovato, it was disgusting of people to poke fun at her bipolar, depression and suicidal thoughts.

More than her drug addiction, her mental illness was an easy target and people with very little tolerance or understanding were firing shots like they were at a shooting range.

“Mental health is something that we all need to talk about and we need to take the stigma away from it. So let’s raise the awareness. Let’s let everybody know it’s OK to have a mental illness and addiction problem. I’m bipolar, whatever. I take care of myself,” Lovato told ExtraTV more than two years ago.

In 2019 the stigmas and jokes should have reached their expiry date.

South Africa saw its own battles with this when rapper Pitch Black Afro appeared in court earlier this month on charges of premeditated murder following his wife’s death on New Year’s Eve 2018. His “relaxed” and “jovial” mood in court led many to suspect the man was mentally ill, and while there were prayers for the star, more than a few people took the opportunity to take shots at him.

People joked about him “losing it”, “missing a few connections” and needing to book into psychiatric hospitals like Weskoppies or Fort Napier.

They immediately assumed he was using nyaope and asked after his dealer..

Maybe it was a coping mechanism or perhaps he is really struggling with a mental condition. Either way, the incident being treated like a joke you tell at a braai is cause for real concern. Surely it is the early sign of an intolerant and decaying society.

SA rapper Gigi Lamayne faced similar jokes when she was hospitalised with anxiety and depression in 2018, leading her to take a break from social media for a while.

For a nation that mourned the loss of stars like Shoki Mokgapa, Pro and HHP, who struggled with mental illness, it was a shocking turn of events.

Perhaps it is because we think celebrities are bulletproof or have superpowers that so many feel comfortable targeting them and are so quick to mock them if they show any sign of mental illness.

A celeb friend told me this week that the problem with fame is that too often you lose your humanity.

“People break personal boundaries. They say and do things that they wouldn’t normally do to another human being. They tend to think that they are people and celebrities are not people. Like we are not same and don’t bleed like them.”

I have seen the damage such criticism can cause, even for people who are not celebrities.

A friend of mine was struggling with anxiety and depression, yet was mocked for it at school. He was often asked when he was going to “try jump off the roof” or if he had brought his blade to class, suggesting he was about to harm himself.

Only those close to him saw the tears he cried and the pain he felt etched on his face.

Instead of providing support, as they do online, bullies were picking on an easy target and destroying a life.

Social media has become a tool that many, including celebrities, use to share their battles with mental illness and get help. Let it not be the same instrument that does more harm than good.