'American Idol's' Dalton Rapattoni on mental health stigma: 'I 100 percent blame television'

Top three finalist Dalton Rapattoni stood out on the final season of American Idol — or what was supposed to be the final season of American Idol, at the time — not only for his passionate performances and quirky, theatrical style, but for his outspokenness about living with bipolar disorder since age 9. He was a rare positive example of bipolar disorder in the media — and Rapattoni, now 21, says negative stereotyping of mental illness in the media, in general, needs to change.

“It’s nice to have people talk about it, because there’s not a lot of media figures that have bipolar disorder that are really good influences,” he tells Yahoo. “Any time people see someone with bipolar disorder on television, it’s always on Law and Order where a person with bipolar disorder murdered 14 people — and it just makes people afraid of people with any sort of mental illness. And that’s real bad. Don’t do that anymore, please. But it’s good to talk about it, just because it’s nice to not only give people with some sort of mental illness someone to look at, but also to show people who don’t have mental illness that we’re not all psycho murderers. Which is cool.”

Rapattoni continues, “I 100 percent blame television [for creating this stigma]. There’s a lot of people in TV that are trying their best to make mental illness a more commonly accepted thing, but for years the only people who had mental illness are plot points. This person has dissociative identity disorder — like, Split was horrible. Things like that just use mental illness as an excuse to make a serial killer. And that is so horrible for public perception, because when someone who has seen Split or another horror film that uses that as a plot point, and then they meet someone with dissociative identity disorder, of course they’re going to be afraid. That’s their only frame of reference. So, yeah, with the public stigma being around, I blame television, because it’s so easy as a plot point to use. Like, ‘How do we make this guy crazy? Oh, give him a mental illness, it’s fine. We don’t have to write an interesting backstory. Just say that he’s nuts.’”

Rapattoni is about to release his solo album Nobodys Home (the deliberately grammatically vague title was inspired by an Emily Dickinson poem), on which he worked with Blue October’s Justin Furstenfeld and Matt Noveskey; Rapattoni cites Furstenfeld, who has always been candid about his own mental health struggles, as a key influence. (Proudly wearing a cheeky “Pink Freud” T-shirt during his Yahoo visit, Rapattoni also expresses admiration for Pink Floyd’s troubled Syd Barrett.) He does note that many mainstream artists — like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Kesha, Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons, Mary Lambert, and Sia, with whom he shared a poignant moment on Idol — have come forward recently to talk about their own mental health battles, and says he’s glad progress is finally being made.

“It’s kind of always been something that’s pushed by the wayside, because it’s a problem that is not visible to anyone who doesn’t experience it; therefore it’s kind of out of sight, out of mind,” Rapattoni says. “It’s nice that artists are getting loud about it, because it’s not like with Chester Bennington. … It’s something that can’t be ignored.”

Reflecting on his bonding experience with Sia, he says, “I didn’t know that Sia had bipolar until the day we met, and then a lot of stuff kind of started to make sense. I always say that there’s ups and downs [with bipolar], but then there’s mountains and valleys, and you occasionally hit one of those really hard ones — and those are when it makes it easier to write songs. That’s when you find a moment of manic clarity. And you can kind of see that in her songs.

“Meeting her was really cool, because it’s nice to see that this won’t end you. You don’t have to sit at home on your couch for the rest of your life, feeling sorry for yourself. You can be not only a productive member of society, but you can be a genuinely great human being that contributes a lot. That’s really nice to see.”

Rapattoni admits he initially didn’t think he would go far on Idol because of his condition, but decided it was best not to hide who he truly is. “I was really nervous to talk about it at first, because I had assumed that like, crap, people are going to find out that I’m bipolar, and then they’re going to be like, ‘Oh, this kid’s weird. We don’t want to vote for him anymore.’ But then I started to get messages from families and moms and dads with kids with bipolar disorder, and I read them and they were very nice. They said that it helped a lot. I remember thinking … I was sitting in my hotel room and I was like, ‘Even if I don’t win, even if this is the thing that sinks me and sends me home, it’s probably worth it.’”

Nobodys Home comes out Sept. 22. Check out two acoustic performances from the album above.

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