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Is how we react to music industry mental health changing?

Zayn’s recent admission reminded us that world famous musicians aren’t superhuman, but our inconsistent treatment of mental health issues says something about our own humanity

Zayn Malik, like 60 million other people in Europe and 1 in 4 people in the UK, deals with anxiety. The Bradford boy, who made the risky jump across the cavern of pop when he left One Direction to launch his solo career; who faced the world with a banger-against-the-odds debut single and an arena of his peers to perform his second, also struggles with something millions of us do.

Last week, the musician candidly addressed his own mental health, after making the decision to cancel his performance at London’s Capital Summertime Ball. Posting on Instagram, he wrote: “My anxiety that has haunted me throughout the last few months around live performances has gotten the better of me... With the magnitude of the event, I have suffered the worst anxiety of my career.”

Malik apologised to fans for pulling out of the gig, promising to make it up to them at a later date. Further, he offered support and solidarity for those who were also dealing with anxiety.

Celebrity status isn’t a forcefield; it may separate us when it comes to power and wealth, but mental illness strikes capriciously. Being followed by 20 million people on Twitter doesn’t stop Malik experiencing that same creeping panic, sweating golf balls or that tight feeling deep in your chest. And as one of the most high-profile young men of our time, it’s refreshing to see him speak so frankly and publicly about a struggle that deeply affects him, and probably a number of his fans. After all, men in the UK between the ages of 20 and 49 are more likely to die from suicide than any other cause. And though the narrative that surrounds mental health has shifted into the mainstream focus in the last few years, partially thanks to prolific figures making their struggles known, society is still learning to treat mental health with the same consistent rigor.

Malik’s girlfriend, model Gigi Hadid, responded to his admission with her own open letter, posted to Twitter. She publicly applauded her boyfriend for his bravery, showing us exactly how we should support people dealing with anxiety. She wrote: “Z – I’ve seen the battles you go through and the way you fight to get to a place that allows you to get up there for your fans.

“Your bravery in those times makes me proud, but your honesty last night proved what you’re all about, being real. Human recognises human. You made the best of a situation and have given your fans an opportunity to understand you better as a performer. Those who can find compassion now are the ones that deserve to watch you grow. We are all here to support you and make each experience easier. Your talent and good heart will never lead you wrong.”

Hadid’s response highlights the empathy that anyone dealing with mental health issues deserves. Supporting a person’s right to put themselves first, and placing importance on self care creates a safe, understanding environment. Sharing the letter publicly makes a stand for a humanity that sometimes forgets artists are humans themselves, rather than laser-beaming, Pillowtalking robots. They’re people first, and tearing musicians down for the frivolity of a cancelled live show, a tour, or a delayed album, when they’re really at their lowest, is pretty shitty.

Or, in Justin Bieber’s case, a series of cancelled meet and greets can bring on an avalanche of scorn and spite for someone who’s obviously mentally exhausted. The Purpose singer only a few months ago took to Instagram to announce he wasn’t going to continue with fan meetups and pictures. Bieber was firm: he wasn’t going to sacrifice his own emotional stability to meet people’s expectations. The pressure was too much, and he took a stand for himself. Not that this mattered to many press outlets who called his decision “obnoxious” and “upsetting”. It was an easy route to take: talk shit about a young star who’s had troubled past experiences and awkwardly grown up in front of the world. There’s a tiny minority of us who will ever experience a modicum of fame or the obstacles that Bieber will. We know he’s not infallible, but we still take cheap shots at someone who’s genuinely suffering.

The strenuous, cyclical nature of touring, writing and releasing wears people down, and no wonder. In her documentary, The F-Word and Me, Charli XCX explains that she cancelled her ‘Charli and Jack Do America’ tour in 2015 for “selfish reasons”. Having been on the road for almost 18 months, the singer found herself feeling trapped and not herself. She apologised profusely to mixed reactions, some angry at what seemed like a rushed decision that left fans in the lurch, others supportive of her need to be creative. Her statement highlighted how she felt she was looking after her happiness at the expense of her fans, showcasing the pressure on musicians, usually female, to keep themselves in check and act as role models. And if selfish is the terminology we use when you’re at breaking point and need to do what’s right for you, then be bloody selfish.

Across the pop microcosm, we’ve built stars up as easily as we’ve snuffed them out. There are artists we’d rather laugh at than seriously question if they need help and support. It’s totally LOLs to drink out of a mug that states ‘If Britney can get through 2007, you can get through today’ but society will ignore the reality that was enforcing a peroxide, bubblegum-and-not-much-else pop singer archetype on a woman, as well as constant tabloid surveillance, which drove her to breakdown.

Female musicians in particular have faced down the barrel of a media shootout, with outlandish speculations that only work to isolate and perpetuate the notions of ‘hysterical’ women. When Rihanna cancelled shows back in 2012, and when she posted a series of selfies, outlets gasped in horror in headlines about supposed narcissistic personality disorder. When Miley Cyrus first stepped out from under the Hannah Montana, sparkly teen queen umbrella, people outwardly asked had she had a psychotic break.

And while back in the ‘00s we were happy to laugh off manic episodes as gossip site fodder, today’s society seems more willing to armchair diagnose celebrity depression, anxiety and supposed bipolar disorders. Kanye West is a frequent patient, and the Twitter arena is the grotty doctor’s office. Every time there’s a new, albeit odd, tweet from the rapper, he spawns thousands of digital prescriptions from people who think they know the ins and outs of a very nuanced health issue. Musing over Kanye, using throwaway words like ‘insane’ and ‘crazy’ and ‘probably manic depressive’ only serves to perpetuate the stigma for non-celebrities, and particular those who are already marginalised and sidelined when it comes to mental health due to race, class and gender. After all, black men are 17 times more likely to be diagnosed with a mental disorder, but only a fifth of people from BME communities feel comfortable discussing it. Relentlessly diagnosing online behaviour from afar also creates the narrative that people who are mentally ill have a set of behaviours, when really, it’s more than just a set of bullet points on the NHS website. Even recently, after cutting her set in Brooklyn short, Grimes had to ask Twitter not to speculate on her mental health.

Although I don’t think it’s naïve to think we’re getting better at providing an unwaveringly empathetic and strong narrative around mental health. Though preceding Kehlani’s suicide attempt was Chris Brown’s abhorrent takedown of the singer on social media, decent fucking people prevailed to offer her the love and understanding she deserved. We’ve reached a stage where male musicians, like Malik and Bieber, are setting the rules with conversation that surrounds male mental health despite our still-warped concepts of masculinity, in a world where 1 in 8 men suffer from a common mental disorder. What’s also important to remember is that, though celebrity admissions like Malik, Demi Lovato, Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus are super brave, these artists owe us nothing. Blanket confessionals aren’t part and parcel of the fan/artists relationship, and they aren't always totally indicative of everyone who lives with mental health issues' experiences. It intersects across fame, across class and elitism, race and gender identity. And people deserve compassion and respect just for existing sometimes.