why instagram is a legitimate platform for talking about mental health

Kehlani and Justin Bieber got real about mental health and got ridiculed for it by the internet. What more do we need to see before taking their struggles seriously?

by Hannah Ongley
30 March 2016, 2:25pm

photography arturo torres

R&B artist Kehlani has carved a career out of her refreshingly honest approach to talking about life and relationships. "At first, I didn't really want anybody to know anything 'cause I didn't want everybody to feel bad for me," she explained to us last year about her decision to make her story public. "I would hate for people to listen to my music and feel pity, I want them to listen to my music and feel some sense of strength and only gather the fact that everything shaped me in a positive way."

On Monday the singer's optimism was tested relentlessly. For anyone who hasn't been on the internet for the past two days: Kehlani has been officially dating NBA player Kyrie Irving since January, though the two have likely been together since the end of last year — a few months after Kehlani broke up with OVO-signed rapper PartyNextDoor. It looked like a fairly amicable breakup, with the rapper later admitting his missteps on a track he named "Kehlani's Freestyle." But on Monday PartyNextDoor send the internet ablaze with an Instagram post of himself lying in bed holding Kehlani's recognizably inked hand. "After all her shenanigans, still got the r&b singer back in my bed," he captioned the photo. Almost immediately Kehlani's name jumped to the top of Twitter's trending topics as people began to accuse her of cheating on Irving. That night Kehlani posted a now-deleted photo to Instagram of her hand hooked up to a hospital IV.

"Today I wanted to leave this earth," she wrote. "Being completely selfish for once. Never thought I'd get to such a low point. But… Don't believe the blogs you read… No one was cheated on and I'm not a bad person… Everyone is hurt and everyone is in a place of misunderstanding… But as of today, I had no single wish to see tomorrow… But God saved me for a reason, and for that… I must be grateful… Cuz I'm not in heaven right now for a reason… On that note… Bye Instagram." She then deleted her entire feed.

Almost as quickly as her name had started trending the first time, the hashtag #StayStrongKehlani appeared on Twitter. Though for every fan wishing her well, there was someone else accusing the singer's suicide attempt of being a play for attention and sympathy. "Kehlani trying to kill herself and putting it on social media for attention, nobody has to know that you tried killing yourself smh," wrote one person on Twitter. "Kehlani almost committed suicide becus [sic] of social media but she turns to social media to broadcast that she is in the hospital," wrote another. The general consensus seemed to be that her struggle would only be "authentic" if she suffered in silence — or at least had refrained from speaking up online.

The speed at which the cruel jokes started flooding in echoed another pop star's attempt to speak up about mental health. Last week, Justin Bieber posted on Instagram that he was canceling future meet and greets due to the toll his workload was taking. "I end up so drained and unhappy," he reasoned. "Want to make people smile and happy but not at my expense and I always leave feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted to the point of depression." You'd be excused for thinking he had just posted a photo of himself peeing in another bucket for the way he was lambasted by the internet. Even media outlets ran with snarky headlines such as, "Justin Bieber won't meet paying fans as they make him depressed." Would it have been easier to believe him if he had told his reps to issue a statement about checking into rehab for exhaustion? Probably. The offhand nature of social media lends itself naturally to honesty. Unfortunately, it's a breeding ground for cruelty and trolls by the exact same token. But the illusion of distance that a computer or iPhone screen provides is potentially a very useful tool for encouraging open conversation about mental health.

Approximately 800 million think pieces have been written about the disconcerting ease with which a fake personality can be crafted online. But the reason is less to do with social media lending itself naturally to deceit and more about the fact that it's easier to do literally anything from behind a screen — including speaking about mental health. Not everyone has a friend or family member they feel comfortable reaching out to in person, and even if they do, there's no casual way to initiate an IRL conversation about depression or suicidal thoughts. By contrast, pressing "share" on an iPhone seems easy. This doesn't make it a cop out, it doesn't make the message any less legitimate, and it definitely doesn't make the person posting it an attention-seeking fraud. Tumblr, and before that LiveJournal, have long functioned as safe spaces for young people to speak candidly about mental health. What is it about other platforms that makes us more comfortable seeing people shill waist trainers and Teatox drinks than sharing melancholy feelings?

Within hours of Kehlani Instagramming from her hospital bed, Prison Break star Wentworth Miller posted a disturbingly comparable message to his Facebook page after finding himself at the receiving end of cruel online jokes — this time in the form of a fat-shaming meme. The actor revealed that he had been suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts since he semi-retired in 2010, and took to social media with a heartbreaking account of self-destruction. Luckily, his story ended on a more positive note. "Now, when I see that image of me in my red t-shirt, a rare smile on my face, I am reminded of my struggle," he wrote. "My endurance and my perseverance in the face of all kinds of demons. Some within. Some without…. If you or someone you know is struggling, help is available. Reach out. Text. Send an email. Pick up the phone." Send a DM.

It's ironic that we're so quick to be dismissive of speaking about mental health on social media when we're currently seeing the positive outcome of doing so play out in real time. Since Kesha went public with her battle to be released from her contract with her record label and her alleged rapist, a contract which she contends caused her to suffer from severe depression, social media has offered thousands of fans and other celebrities an effective way to rally behind the embattled pop star, and to come out with their own stories of abuse survival. Do we need harrowing facts such as those that color the Kesha case to make a pop star's mental health struggles authentic?

One of the worst opinions the internet is voicing about Kehlani is that she should be able to handle the abuse since she put her whole life online in the first place — basically that she was asking for it by being active on Instagram. Well it's 2016 and she's hardly alone in doing so. The prevalence of crying selfies last year offered a welcome reprieve from pre-packaged celebrity culture, and seemed to suggest that the conversation is changing. But clearly our demand for #NoFilter honesty still comes with qualifications. So much for #LiveAuthentic — everyone wants to expose celebrities as liars, but no one wants to see them exposed as human beings. 


Text Hannah Ongley
Photography Arturo Torres

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