You’ve probably read somewhere over the last 48 hours that rapper Kid Cudi posted a lengthy message to his fans on his Facebook page, explaining that he has admitted himself to a rehab facility for treatment of depression and suicidal ideation. (If you haven’t, the post is here and well worth a read.)
If you’re only familiar with him because of, say, his contributions to Kanye West’s albums, it’s easy to understate just how popular Cudi is, and thus how significant this news is as far as public discussion of mental health goes. You need only look at the response to his post to see how important it is: social metrics aren’t the be-all and end-all of a statement’s impact, of course, but still, at the time of publication some 125,000 people had shared the post on their own Facebook. The original post has 538,000 “likes,” which, just think about that for a moment — over half a million people have been reached by Cudi’s words.
To say this is heart-warming is, again, an understatement — we’re perhaps a generation removed from a time when mental health was barely discussed in private, let alone in public by a man who has 10 million Facebook followers. Cudi’s post comes a month or so after Bruce Springsteen’s memoir revealed that he’s been dealing with depression for decades — he spoke in 2012 about how he’s been in therapy for 30 years, but this is the first time he’s been this open about the nature of his condition.
The contrast between two superstars of different generations is as stark as it is perversely encouraging — it’s heartening that Cudi has felt able to be so open in his 30s, instead of waiting until his 60s, and also that Springsteen finally feels able to speak openly about his struggles.
At the same time, though, the post shows that there remains plenty of work to be done. As a direct result of this post, a hashtag has emerged on Twitter — sneer all you want, but these things have real impact — encouraging black men to speak about their mental health, which is as much as anything an admission of the fact that many men, black and otherwise, feel unable to discuss these issues with their friends and family.
It’s also led to a heap of less formalized discussions on social media around depression, medication and recovery. Notably, the highest rated of its 50,000 comments on Cudi’s Facebook post is this:
Amongst the “hell yeah”s, there are many, many comments questioning Jacques’ exhortation to Cudi to “take your pills.” Those arguing against the use of antidepressants are trotting out familiar arguments like “antidepressants aren’t natural,” suggesting that they’re “a crutch,” and so on. (And, inevitably, there’s at least one dildo suggesting that Cudi just “smoke the herb,” as if a) he’s not already doing that and b) marijuana is a panacea for mental health problems, which it most assuredly is not.)
While mental health concerns are less stigmatized than they have been in the past, the proposed solution of actually taking medication for them is still one that the general public regards with suspicion. Much of this suspicion is due to the scattershot nature of SSRIs — the brain is so complicated that we still don’t really understand the subtle interactions of neurotransmittters and synapses, and the prescription of medication is generally a matter of trying various drugs until you find one that works. Part of the skepticism is due to concerns about the role that medication can play in suicides, although we’re still working out how much of the link between antidepressants is correlation and how much is causation. Part of it is due to concerns about overprescription, which certainly have some legitimacy. Part of it comes from a general skepticism of big pharma.
But beyond these aspects, the stigmatization of medication comes from the fact that we still live in a society where admission of a mental health condition is often equated with admission of weakness. This brings us to Cudi’s own admission that “I feel so ashamed,” which is the saddest part of the whole post. We often feel that if we were somehow “strong enough,” we could “get through” whatever’s troubling us without having to resort to treatment. This is, objectively, nonsense — no-one ever suggests that if you just ignore the pain of a broken leg and keep walking on it, it’ll sort magically itself out on its own.
Perversely, though, plenty of people suggest that if you just do yoga and meditate and eat organic food and exercise, your depression will miraculously evaporate. All these things can help, certainly, in the same way that, say, eating healthy and exercising can reduce the incidence of heart disease. But at the same time, some people who live exemplarily healthy lives still develop heart disease. Some people who do everything “natural” you’re supposed to do to obviate depression end up depressed anyway. And in these cases, medication can be nothing short of miraculous.
In Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon — which I can’t recommend highly enough if you want to understand depression, either to better understand your own condition or that of someone close to you — there’s an anecdote about running into an acquaintance at a cocktail party. Solomon mentions he’s writing a book about depression; the acquaintance proclaims proudly that she has “beaten” depression. He asks how. She responds as follows:
“I realized that the problem was stress-related. So I decided to eliminate all the causes of stress in my life. I quit my job. I broke with my boyfriend and never really looked for another one. I gave up my roommate and now I live alone. I stopped going to parties that run late. I moved to a smaller place. I dropped most of my friends. I gave up, pretty much, on makeup and clothes. It sounds bad, but I’m really much happier than before. And I did it without pills!”
Solomon is horrified, and so was I when I read the passage. “Is it crazy,” Solomon asks, “to avoid the behaviors that make you crazy? Or is it crazy to medicate so that you can sustain a life that makes you crazy”? This is something to which we all have to find our own answers, I guess, but most of us don’t have the option of simply removing ourselves from our jobs, our homes, our lives. And the irony is that the changes made by the woman in Solomon’s book to her life have produced exactly the changes in her brain that antidepressants would have done (had they worked for her, anyway.) Essentially, antidepressants work in a similar way to vaccines, which modify our body’s internal state so as to prevent the incidence of diseases that might otherwise flourish. It’s no accident that the same kind of thinking which produces aversion to antidepressants often correlates with skepticism of vaccines.
Anyway, all of this brings us back to Kid Cudi, who is doing what is necessary for him to continue to live the life he wants to live. It takes no small measure of courage to decide that you can’t beat depression on your own, that you need help, and that you’re willing to seek that help. If it involves taking medication — and I’m assuming that since he’s feeling bad enough to check himself into a rehab facility, it almost certainly will — then I hope he takes it proudly. As he writes in his post, “I deserve to have peace. I deserve to be happy and smiling. Why not me?” Indeed, everyone deserves peace, and no-one should be ashamed to take the steps to find it.