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How Celebrity Fandoms Destroy Real Peoples' Lives

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“No matter how hard the Internet or anyone tries to make me kill myself. I won’t,” comedian and SNL cast member Pete Davidson wrote in a Dec. 3 note posted to his Instagram.

It was a wrenching admission about being bullied and harassed online and in person both during his relationship with Ariana Grande and after their breakup. Davidson has been very open on social media about living with borderline personality disorder, and had taken to Instagram before to defend himself against people who claimed that “people with BPD can’t be in relationships.” His attempt to level with rabid fans and stans didn’t stop them from piling on, and his openness about living with mental illness served as fodder for ridicule. On Dec. 15, after cyber bullies returned with a vengeance, Pete wanted us to know he’s contemplating suicide.

Davidson’s announcement of suicidal ideation came after his Instagram post applauding Kanye West for his “bravery in speaking out about mental health” amid the rapper’s Twitter feud with Grande, who had subtweeted about his beef with Drake. The post moved fans to pile onto Davidson in toxic and unhealthy ways, often telling Davidson explicitly that he should commit suicide.

 

 

The toxic environment fueled by rabid fans and stans pushed Davidson to his limit. It’s also prompting a growing list of celebs to abandon social media, including Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul and Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart, who announced she’s taking an indefinite break from the toxic people who feel the need to constantly attack her on Twitter.

And as Inkoo Kang wrote for Slate earlier this year, the online harassment of queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race has gotten so bad that the show’s stans now have a reputation for being fervid and vicious, even as contestants need social media in order to keep their performing careers going. “And that dependence on social media opens them up to all sorts of abuse from fans,” Kang noted, “so that contestants telling devotees to maybe not love Drag Race so much is becoming a regular occurrence.”

A side point to all this is that Davidson’s response to Kanye, and also the mass messages of support to both of them, convey a misunderstanding that theirs and other mental health struggles are one in the same. Making too many direct comparisons is a failure to see that in fact, both men have two different conditions, and also two different experiences of getting treatment. Davidson has shown us what can possibly go wrong for people who actively seek treatment, even when it isn’t perfect; West demonstrates the lasting outcomes for those who have care and opt out to their detriment. It wouldn’t be wise for Davidson, or anyone, to conflate the two.

West admitted multiple times that he doesn’t take his medication for bipolar disorder, both in August and again on the day of Davidson’s alarming post. After more than six months off his regimen, West said he “feels like himself again” as he creates new music. West’s struggle to follow his treatment plan is fairly common among some people with mental illness according to studies, and experts say lack of social support plays a role. But if the regimen makes matters worse, doctors can carefully change course and therapists can help develop new tools for wellness with the patient. These resources are well within reach for West, while millions of Americans can’t access the mental health care they need because of costs and coverage gaps.

Davidson, however, says he takes his meds. He’s recently opened up about living with BPD and grappling with sobriety after once admitting he couldn’t do SNL without pot. Even in a direct address to West while he was still dating Grande, Davidson reminded everyone that there’s “no shame in medication game.” These remarks came during his “Weekend Update” segment on SNL, a response to West’s controversial, stream-of-consciousness remarks about race and politics from the season premiere. After Davidson referred to himself and the rapper as “crazy” — a pejorative that, in context, runs counter to reducing stigma — he urged West to follow treatment again, just as any average person should. ‘Ye still hasn’t.

But the average person doesn’t have to contend with online harassment, bullying, and attacks from toxic fans while trying to get their mental health back on track. And that’s been the unfortunate reality for West, as well as Davidson.

As far as we know, Davidson’s situation took a sharp turn after the very public split with Grande. A spiral in mental health could happen to most anyone challenged by major life changes, whether they live with a mental illness or not.

Contrary to what scores of Twitter and Instagram stans assert, the blame for Davidson’s suicide ideation doesn’t lie with Grande, and she’s also not responsible for ex-boyfriend Mac Miller’s fatal overdose. The attacks on Grande from rabid fans intensified so much that the singer disabled comments on her Instagram account. Davidson and Grande broke up just weeks after Miller’s September death, fueling speculation that the tragedy prompted the split.

Davidson also caught hell while going about his daily life. The day before he opened up about struggling with Internet stans and trolls, a viral video captured Davidson at Cafeteria in New York City where the waiter allegedly plays Grande’s “thank u, next” after his party is seated.

Around the same time, Pete returned to Instagram after a lengthy hiatus to promote an upcoming project, only to get swarmed with tons of “thank u, next” comments, nasty messages that he’s nothing without Grande and that he’s now cancelled. Scooter Braun, Grande’s manager, defended Davidson in the comments and asked the rabid fans and stans to be respectful of a good person, noting that Grande’s camp only wishes him the best. Grande herself, in an apparent direct message with a fan, said she cares deeply about Davidson and his health, and would never want or encourage any kind of mistreatment toward him.

When fandom and standom become corrosive enough to trigger a life-or-death situation, which is often, those who participate in any form should have enough empathy and compassion to take a step back and evaluate whether or not their pop culture obsessions go too far. To be fair, there’s a difference between playful humor, “shade,” valid criticism, baseless attacks and threats. Fandom, when done responsibly, builds community that makes the audience experience all the more valuable, constructive, and positive.

Even though public figures seem larger than life, they, too, can descend from their pedestals and feel as broken as any other human being. Thankfully Davidson had friends and loved ones who would move mountains to keep him from completely falling apart. If only we were all so fortunate.

“[A]t least I’m aware of it and not afraid to be honest about it and I’m not hiding behind a Twitter or Instagram account,” Davidson wrote in May. “For all those struggling, I want you to know I love you and I understand you and it is going to be okay.”

If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. The Trans Lifeline can also be reached at 1-877-565-8860, and the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386.

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