The first thing I saw about Etika last week wasn’t that he had gone missing. It was a conspiracy theory that he had coordinated a stunt for attention, shared by a Twitter account with millions of followers. I’m not sure if the disinformation campaign worked, or if it was the reporter in me, but I watched events unfold with some skepticism, halfway hoping he’d show up at the end, alive and well. But no: Desmond “Etika” Amofah was found dead late last month at the age of 29.
It dawns on me now that I reacted that way because over the last year, Etika had gained a reputation on YouTube. It had become clear for some time that the YouTuber was struggling. In April, he had a full-fledged mental breakdown in front of the internet. That same month, he appeared on YouTube tabloids “losing his mind for, like, the third time.” Manic rants where Etika claimed to be God became attractions, with interviewers implying that he was just doing it for audiences.
“When the cameras turned on Etika did what he always did ENTERTAIN!” YouTube gossip reporter Keemstar said in the description to an unsettling video where he talks to Etika about an incident involving the cops. Keem continued, “I was never fully convinced that he was mentally ill or in trouble because of our private convos.”
This was a common perspective: Etika was doing it for attention, or maybe he was building an ARG for his fans.
This was the YouTuber whose viral clips often had him completely losing it to Nintendo announcements. In a span of seconds, Etika would go from ecstatic yelling to falling out of his chair. His videos blurred the line between genuine enthusiasm and performative exaggeration. It was something you could count on whenever there was a big new Nintendo announcement. There goes Etika again, wilding for the camera.
Looking back on this material now, it’s obvious that many people didn’t merely fail to take Etika’s mental health struggles seriously — they treated it like a show. Viral clips where Etika is fighting with a cop were appended with captions like “LMFAOOOOOOOO.”
It wasn’t just the internet. If you watch that clip, you can hear people in the area laughing as the situation unfolds. The jokey nature of it all superseded a more horrifying reality, which was that this altercation happened in a country where black people routinely get killed by police for much, much less — never mind that the same is true of mentally ill people. Etika was both.
In the past year, when Etika was punching cops and claiming to be the Antichrist, it was treated like a continuation of his over-the-top act. There goes Etika again, losing it for the cameras. But even the smallest distance from the videos reveals a gulf between an enthusiastic celebration of a video game announcement and a mental health collapse.
I think of viral clips where people of color get into fights, or simply express anything with verve. “Loud and Black” is a racist stereotype used to discount the people who are expressive and passionate. This became a lens for viewers to see Etika as a character. At the same time many white viewers mocked him, they also imitated him. They would parrot Etika’s free-flowing use of the n-word, happy to consume his blackness while simultaneously flattening him into a cartoon, signature catchphrases (Joycon Boyz!) and all.
That some viewers didn’t see Etika as a real person with real problems might explain why they failed to take his crisis seriously enough. But when reaction clips gave way to more unhinged livestreams — like one where Etika is yelling at officers to not arrest him — the reality of Etika’s infamy became apparent.
Fans who knew Etika were concerned, of course, but just as many people seemed dedicated to humiliating a man who had publicly alluded to suicide in the past. A not-insignificant number of onlookers considered Etika a sideshow act, meant to be laughed and gawked at. Where other YouTubers can turn their personas off and be taken seriously from time to time, Etika was seemingly never afforded that luxury by the public at large, even as things got dire. What made him different?
As our sister site The Verge reports, it became a meme to append clown emojis to anything Etika-related, even as he was clearly going through something. It was as if some of the public was implicitly saying, well, can you really trust that this is real, and not a ploy for attention? The fact that Etika became a joke to anyone is particularly egregious when you consider that, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “African Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population.”
Etika was indeed admitted to the hospital a few times to deal with his illness, only to get released shortly afterward. The odds were stacked against him here. The mental health resources for black and African American patients aren’t robust enough. Less than 2% of the American Psychological Association is black or African American, which, according to Mental Health America, may make it harder for some to get the type of specialized care that they need. If people of color overcome the stigma that comes with mental illness, they end up braving an environment where patients often report experiencing “racism and microaggression from therapists.”
And so, time and again, online and offline, people failed to take Etika seriously.
In the wake of Etika’s death, many YouTubers are reflecting on the hardships of fame on the platform. These are necessary conversations to have, especially as mental health continues to be a huge problem on YouTube. Etika was kicked off YouTube for posting porn, but even if he had stayed, it likely wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Even as an increasing percentage of its talent pool is struggling with related issues, YouTube is mostly hands-off when it comes to mental health. There are YouTube resources like videos and web portals that discuss the topic broadly, and that’s about it. If YouTube isn’t fully equipped or committed to dealing with mental health, it definitely isn’t capable of addressing problems specific to marginalized groups on the platform.
More than anything, I’m left feeling with a sense of guilt and complicity about it all. When someone dies, you can’t help but think, “Was there something I could have done to stop it?”
This isn’t that — not entirely, anyway. It’s the gnawing, uneasy realization that everything was unfolding in front of our eyes, clearly and openly, and it didn’t make any difference. It’s the sinking feeling that maybe, just maybe, we — viewers, social media, platforms like YouTube — let this happen.