Getting out of our heads

Milena Messner /
Sep 18, 2018 / Culture

Mac Miller’s death has given us a lot to think about.

Since the 26-year-old rapper was found dead in his Studio City home following an expected overdose, stars and twitter trolls alike have publicly turned on ex-partner Ariana Grande in a misplaced attempt to attribute responsibility for his death. The instinct to hold women accountable for their partner’s health and wellbeing sadly comes as no surprise. But attacks on Ariana are much more than a sign that the patriarchy is alive and well, they are a testament to just how much stigma still surrounds mental health, and just how resistant we still are to talking about it.

Grande is not the first to receive backlash and be held responsible for the actions of her partner long after they have separated, nor will she be the last. But none of this animosity has come from Miller, who expressed nothing but respect and happiness for Grande for “moving forward with her life” in a recent interview with Zane Lowe (2018). Attempting to pin blame on Grande for Miller’s death not only fails to do justice to Miller, who always took responsibility for his own actions and choices, but it also serves to divert away from some of the unsavoury truths that we need to face up to when it comes to mental health.

The fact of the matter is, no partner can be held responsible for the mental health of their significant other, nor are they qualified to take it on. Grande’s apologies for not being able to “fix or take [Miller’s] pain away’ in her most recent Instagram post are indicative of an incredibly troubling narrative that persists when it comes to these issues. We aren’t qualified to fix people. Mental illness can’t be ‘fixed’, only managed. Friends, family and especially partners can provide a great comfort to someone suffering from mental health issues. They may even be able to combat some of the symptoms surrounding it, as Grande helped Miller to do when she encouraged his sobriety and helped him seek out other outlets, like exercise, to express and process his pain. But the most important thing a partner can do is help that person seek access to mental health services.

Miller’s personal trainer Harley Pasternak, reeling from his death, told Page Six “I know people that are depressed [and] that was not a depressed person.” But what does a depressed person look like, exactly? The idea that we can identify depression externally is yet another dangerous misconception that continues to be widely perpetuated. We can’t identify a ‘depressed person’ because we don’t wear our mental illness like we do our clothes. It isn’t outwardly visible. This is part of the very problem. Depression has many faces, and Miller knew this. He even raps about it on his last album Swimming:Cause on the surface I look so fine / But really I’m buggin’, buggin’”.

Miller’s struggles with mental health have been well documented throughout his career. The Pittsburgh rapper spoke openly about addiction, depression and the toxicity of fame. He rapped about his fear of overdosing and early death, expressing hopes that he wouldn’t join the “27 club” (in ‘Brand Name’), an infamous list of musicians, artists and actors who died at age 27.

Miller’s 2014 mixtape Faces is undoubtedly the darkest of his musical offerings, riddled with self-destruction and suicidal ideations. But themes of depression, loneliness, substance abuse and mortality have persisted throughout his musical career. We even see Miller rap from the inside a coffin in recently released music video Self Care, an ominous foreshadowing of events to come.

Miller’s death preceded World Suicide Prevention Day by just three days.

Men make up over 75 percent of suicide victims in the United States, with one man killing himself every 20 minutes (Psychology Today). There is also a high level of comorbidity of depression and substance abuse in men. They are at higher risk of suicide and substance abuse and significantly less likely to seek out mental health services than women (Psychology Today). Patriarchal structures that define emotional expression as “feminine” – and therefore weak – make men more resistant to seeking out mental health services and more likely to suppress feelings of depression and turn to self-medication. Depression can lead to substance abuse, behaviour which can, in turn, exacerbate feelings of depression: it’s a vicious cycle.

Miller found an outlet for emotional expression through his music, he explicitly called it “great therapy” for depression in his Billboard interview of 2015. His music is a testament not only to the bravery that emotional expression entails but on the profound impact it can have on making others feel less alone. Overwhelming amounts of people have reached out to thank Miller for helping them through dark times, both throughout his career and now following his death. Music helped Miller process, and it helped others feel heard. It was the fame that made him sick. “It started with success” he told interviewer Larry King in 2015, “fame is tricky because you read what is said about you and you know what you know to be true but the lines begin to blur”.

The rapper, who died age 26 shortly after his recent album Swimming was released, and shortly before going back on tour, is one of many young artists to have died from drug and mental health-related causes this year. These include Avicii, who died age 28 after taking his own life, Kyle Pavone who died of an overdose age 28 and fellow rapper Fredo Santana who died at 27 of a fatal seizure following complications relating to an addiction to “lean”, a concoction made up of a promethazine/codeine, alcohol and soda that is especially dangerous when mixed with other drugs. The number of male artists dying under 30 from drug or mental health-related causes compared to women is testament alone to gendered disparities when it comes to mental health problems both in the industry and at large. But how many more young lives will be lost before we recognise what is really at stake when it comes to persisting stigmas surrounding mental health?

Miller did something we’re still struggling to, he talked honestly and extensively about mental health throughout his life. He talked about how it feels to be rich, famous and successful, and still be depressed in spite of it all. He spoke with nuance about his history of substance of abuse, revealing that the line between having a good time and becoming a “destructive depressed drug user” (Zane Lowe interview 2018) hinged on his state of mind. He refused to shy away from his past or to discount his drug-induced albums, explaining  “I went through so much emotionally mentally […] physically to act like it was for nothing” in FADER documentary Stopped Making Excuses (2016). He tapped into the dangers of social media, “a weight in my emotional space and my headspace” (Zane Lowe interview 2018). He rapped about his fears “I inherited the thirst for self-destruction and I’m scared of it” (San Francisco) and the temptations of escapism “I just need a way out of my head, I’ll do anything for a way out” (Come Back to Earth). He explored just how all-encompassing loneliness can be. He opened up about how badly he wanted to reassure people, especially his fans, that he’s okay. He was a 90s kid, whose music tapped into the experience of growing up in the millennial generation. He was the voice we needed, he was the voice he needed, and as a society, we failed him.

All is not lost. Mental health has increasingly become a topic of importance within the industry, with more managers speaking out about the need for mental health support for musicians on the road. Various associations continue to fight to counter adverse mental health for individuals in the industry and in society at large. Longstanding foundations like Help Musicians (UK) and MusiCares (US) aim to support musicians’ emotional health throughout their careers, especially during times of added stress and greater risk, for instance, while the artists are on tour. A newer UK charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) was recently founded to combat suicide rates in men.

All the same, there is no easy fix for depression, nor is there currently enough support for those in need. We need to continue to find new ways to raise awareness and re-commit to reduce the stigma surrounding these issues.

This starts, most of all, with conversation.

Speaking out is powerful. And that’s something we can all be better about.

Words by Milena Messner

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