Losing It: Rappers and Mental Health

It seems rappers are losing it these days.

Over the past weeks and months, the news headlines have been flooded with stories of Hip-Hop artists receiving treatment for mental illness or impairment, including Gucci Mane, Charles Hamilton, and longtime troubled rapper DMX.

For the most part, this isn’t MC institutionalization Lindsay Lohan-style. Critics say the cries for help are publicity stunts or convenient ways to dodge jail time. In fact, Gucci Mane, two weeks off a psychiatric evaluation, tattooed an ice cream cone on his face while promoting his mixtape, 2 Time, with DJ Love Dinero.

Others say the recent meltdowns signal a bigger problem among scores of untreated people, especially Black men. In rap, crazy sometimes equals cool; still, experts agree that when mental illness goes unchecked, it can lead to all sort of issues, including depression, paranoia, violence, and suicide.

“When psychiatric disorders are not diagnosed and treated, they can have a significant impact on the individual, their family and friends, and society,” Dr. Colleen A. Ewing, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with F.A.C.E. Psychological Services, recently told AllHipHop.com. “Untreated mental illnesses can also be a burden on society, causing loss of work productivity, increased levels of homelessness, and interactions with the criminal justice system,” Dr. Ewing added.

Records show that in the past five years, Gucci Mane has been arrested and jailed five times in Georgia, for charges ranging from aggravated assault to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. In early January, his lawyer told an Atlanta judge his client was mentally incompetent to speak for himself during a probation violation hearing. The judge ordered Gucci to a nearby psychiatric and drug dependency hospital to undergo evaluation. Just last week, he was arrested again for pushing a woman out of a moving car, an incident that originally happened in January.

Gifted but tragic rapper DMX has a well-known history of drug abuse and brushes with the law. He has been incarcerated 13 times, including at least once each year for the past decade, for infractions from drug to guns to illegal pit bull possession. His December visit to an Arizona mental health unit was ordered after his most recent arrest for violating probation by drinking alcohol during a concert.

Theories over the years have said DMX suffers from bipolar disorder, in addition to his clear penchant for crack and liquor. His altered states of being might be the gift and the curse that lend brilliance and tragedy to his lyrics; a tortured soul often makes for the best material – think the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Presently, Dr. Ewing said there are more people experiencing mental health issues than ever – and many of them are functioning and sometimes excelling in traditional society.

“There are many more households led by single parents, and there is less of an extended family. As a result, many individuals do not have support systems in place that normally would have enabled them to cope with stress,” said Dr. Ewing. “They develop a maladaptive reaction to the stress, such as depression or anxiety. To help them manage these symptoms, many persons will turn to drugs and/or alcohol,“ she said.

“And not to mention the pushing and pulling that occurs with artists of various levels of popularity from sex and drugs being contextual staples, to the proverbial, fake ‘yes’ men and women who laugh at all of their jokes and look upon them as if they were living reflections of human perfection,” said Dr. James M. Ballard III. Dr. Ballard, a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Maryland, presents on topics related to the mental health of performing artists, i.e., rappers, vocalists, and musicians, etc. at music conferences, workshops, and seminars, and works independently with artists and groups/bands.

Sometimes, with the help of people like Dr. Ballard or encouragement from others, rappers seek help voluntarily. This past summer rapper Charles Hamilton checked himself into New York Presbyterian Hospital, citing the need for “peace of mind” as the reason for his stay. From inside the hospital, he gave rambling but coherent press interviews comparing the music industry to a psych ward.

Dr. Ewing noted, “The music industry is in itself an arena that constantly exposes an individual to high levels of stress – these stressors can include ongoing ‘beefs’ with other artists, constantly being in the spotlight, your image and music constantly being scrutinized and criticized, people holding unrealistic role model expectations of you, and having to maintain a particular persona.”

“Additionally, a music artist has to continually produce new music and stay relevant as the music industry changes. Many artists have to deal with these stressors at young ages, when they have not developed adequate coping skills, do not have strong support systems in place, etc,” said Dr. Ewing.

“Artists’ time is no longer theirs; their issues are considered within the framework of the bottom line,” said Dr. Ballard. “Artists may be tired, have the flu, be anxious, be depressed, be hoarse, miss their families and/or children, be experiencing trouble recalling their lyrics, be high or drunk, doubt themselves as people, or be experiencing an assortment of other issues, but regardless, the show must go on,” he added.

To top it off, mental illness has a stigma, especially in the Black community where historically, seeking help for mental or emotional problems is seen as a sign of weakness. Dr. Yasser A. Payne, asst. professor of Black American Studies at University of Delaware, is not quick to write off rappers’ instability with the stigma. “’Mental illness’ is strong language – I would argue the mind is ‘challenged,’ and the mind and spirit have adapted to traumatic events,” he told AllHipHop.

“Also, it’s difficult to capture to what extent Black youth and, in particular, street life-oriented Black men are challenged with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), given that Black men have the highest turnover rate in therapy – something like a 90% turnover rate,” he noted. Dr. Payne, who has studied the complex lives of urban Black men, added that many rappers, like other Black men growing up in the streets, can suffer from the same PTSD effects as soldiers returning from a war-zone.

“PTSD is vastly unstudied in the context of street life-oriented Black men, and may be the way to understand mental health in this population,” he said. “Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary, a social work scholar is pretty popular for coining the term ‘Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome,’ which underscores how exposure to violence and other forms of urban stressors have deeply impacted the psyches, attitudes, and behaviors of Black youth.“

Whether it’s from industry pressure, an undiagnosed problem, or growing up fatherless in drug and crime-infested neighborhoods, something does seem to be going wrong in the minds of rappers at a higher rate these days. Awareness and therapy are keys to managing their issues. Ironically, in the zany world of Hip-Hop, rapper meltdowns sometimes lead to critically acclaimed, platinum-selling albums like Kanye’s Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Credit for article goes to Seandra Sims

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