Vic Mensa
Credit: Frank Ockenfels III

Rapper Vic Mensa's debut album, The Autobiography, out today, documents his lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression. Here, he talks candidly to about mental illness and the stigma surrounding it.

Mental health issues run in my family. I've been seeing therapists and psychiatrists since I was 15 years old. When I started taking psychoactive substances, it made it so much easier for me to slip into a dark place. I fell deeper into a depressive and suicidal mindset. Once I started experimenting with drugs, it became a dependence that I felt was necessary for me to be creative, but in actuality, it was the opposite—it was stifling my creativity and restricting my honesty and taking me everywhere but where I needed to be.

I wanted to be candid and transparent about my struggles in this album because, for me, that was the beginning of the healing process. To be real in the music was a way for me to come to terms with the things I was feeling and to examine the contributing factors. We all carry around our childhood and our past in the behaviors and thought patterns of our present. This was my way of trying to erase my own shame and, in the process, open up the conversation and encourage other people to challenge their issues and confront them.

There's a song on [the album] called "Memories On 47th St.," where I talk about seeing drugs being sold outside of my window at a young age. I talk about being ostracized in school, labeled problematic, and getting harassed by police officers and undervalued by teachers. I talk about seeing a close friend shooting up heroin and waving the needle at me. You take a genetic predisposition for mental issues and add a culture of violence, systemic racism, and access to drugs, and you may find yourself in a bit of trouble. When you have all of these contributing pressures pushing and pulling you in so many different directions, it can put you down a violent, self-destructive path. It can be manically excessive.

I was on a downward spiral [over the past few years]. I wasn't being good to people, and I definitely wasn't being good in relationships. At a certain point, things came to a head with my girlfriend, Alexandra, and she was able to look past things I had done when I opened up to her about how I constantly felt suicidal. Barely five minutes went by during any day that I didn't feel like killing myself. She immediately got me help. That selfless act really hit home for me. I stopped doing drugs and started working really closely with a therapist. Then all the music just started pouring out of me.

I feel like mental health is so stigmatized because people don't want to be labeled as crazy. You can talk about any type of sickness or wellness except your brain because it's considered different from maintaining your health in other ways. We know we gotta go to the gym to be in shape, but nobody tells us that going to therapy will help you stay in shape mentally. Trying to guide, direct, and understand your thought processes can help you master them the same way that shooting jump shots can help you win a basketball game.

The conversation about mental health needs to happen because there are a lot of people struggling right now that are being exploited and pitted against each other. Republican, Democrat, urban, rural, white, black, Muslim, non-Muslim, American, Mexican. Everybody is being led to believe that they are each others' enemies and the reason for each others' problems, and that’s just a ploy people in power use to keep us from addressing the real root of our problems.

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I don't have all of the answers—I just have a voice and a platform. I'm just trying to give a realistic perspective and open up the dialogue from which I believe solutions can come. I'm not running for president, I'm just telling my truth and hoping that it can help people along the way.

As told to Claire Stern.