the bonds between popular culture, politics and mental health

I hate when someone says, “I’m not political and don’t pay attention to the news”
I hate the idea that some people think politics can be turned on and off in any situation like a light switch.
I hate the notion that our current moment can be separated from, well, anything.

When I started this project, I had no intentions in talking about politics. I’ve been tired of talking about politics since the 2016 election. 2020 has left me and the chunk of people paying attention burned out. I thought I could make TOS into a dose of novocaine for all of our achey, screen-stressed eyes.

To think that was a possibility is almost laughable. It’s a privilege to even think one remove politics in any situation. I didn’t want to be that person, and I knew it couldn’t even be done.

With the death of Walter Wallace Jr. happening in the past week and Election Day happening tomorrow, nothing – music, popular culture, our identities – is shielded from impact no matter where you are on the political spectrum and how you view what is going down in current events. And nothing should be safe if any change should occur.

27-year-old black man, twin, father, and son Wallace Jr. was shot and killed by the Philadelphia police officer after Wallace Jr. approached the officer with a knife. The family of Wallace Jr. had called an ambulance because Wallace Jr. was experiencing a mental health crisis, but the police showed up. Wallace Jr. had been known to have taken lithium, a medication used to treat bipolar disorder, a mental illness that causes extreme mood swings.

Over and over again, I write about failures in approaching mental health issues. My ideas and the stigmas themselves feel intangible, invisible, and almost unreal. But Wallace Jr.’s death makes it clear that misunderstanding is real and fatal.

While the training of police in properly handling those experiencing a mental health crisis should be necessary, the majority of changing the response has to happen outside of a classroom and/or a formalized setting. All of the teaching can be done and materials read, but without exposure to those with mental health issues and a full de-rooting of our current deep seeded cultural norms will we be able to approach those with mental health issues with care and actually have people survive.

I’m not going to act like I have all the facts in Wallace Jr.’s case, because at this point in time, very few do. But I do know that the way we view bipolar disorder falls short, especially for black men. Hip-hop star Kanye West is publicly known to have bipolar disorder. West has publicly acted in ways that may be attributed to his bipolar disorder. In a particular West fashion, he interrupted Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards, fired off alarming Twitter rants, and announced he was running for president. West held a campaign rally in South Carolina where West said both unconventional and problematic stuff, and it’s worth noting that having bipolar disorder does not give him an excuse to be discriminatory. All these actions have made West the butt of jokes, mocking the celebrity, and calling him “crazy.”

Pop star Halsey denounced making fun of West and cited her own bipolar diagnosis in a series of Tweets over the summer. With putting personal opinions aside, Halsey Tweeted “If you can’t offer understanding or sympathy, offer your silence.”

It’s this misjudgment, ridicule and not taking mental health issues seriously in culture that ghosts its way into our everyday lives. If others can’t respond properly to West in 2020 – one of the most iconic artists in music who has the privilege of celebrity – then did Wallace Jr. even have a chance?

With the election tomorrow, I keep thinking about the opportunity to change. If Joe Biden is elected, the country will have a president who has been personally impacted by addiction. On the other hand if Trump stays in office, he’ll seek to repeal the Affordable Care Act which will limit people’s access to mental health services. I’d place my bets on Trump continuing to use stigmatizing language for those with mental health and addiction issues.

No matter how tired we are, there’s no separation between politics, popular culture, and our daily lives when it comes to understanding mental health. When we see something that we know would further a stigma, we have to call it out. Despite how uncomfortable it can be, we have to talk about our own mental health issues to others to foster acceptance and empathy, and at the very least, in order to expose more people to how you can lead a sustainable life with a mental health issue. We have to create systems that approach those experiencing a mental health crisis with care and compassionate de-escalation instead of power-over, authoritative tactics.  Federal policies for better mental health care are important for access to tangible mental health care, and while simply having access to mental health care is crucial, enacting policies sends the message across that mental health is cause worth pursuing and funding because it is normal and essential.

There needs to be more of a pause if we want to change; a pause must happen before we have a knee jerk reaction based on what we consume to someone we come in contact with who has a mental health issue. So go out, vote, take a moment to pause and keep being tired. If you’re tired, it means you’re paying attention. Or something like that.


This week’s playlist can be found here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s