Before making the move to Los Angeles to pursue a singing career, Nessa Barrett, as a 17-year-old girl living in New Jersey, rose to fame on TikTok. But even after acquiring 26 million followers on social media and widespread recognition for her music, Barrett is determined to keep her platform authentic as she continues to open up about living with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and the many other things that make her human.
"I wish that I had a person that was releasing music or openly advocating for mental health, to [help me] realize that there's a lot of people that go through it," the 19-year-old told Seventeen magazine. "If I saw an artist that was successful and they still dealt with mental health, then I would have known it was okay for me as well."
While Barrett's Sept. 2021 debut EP included songs with lyrics describing her struggles with mental illness — including anxiety and depression — the music isn't the first outlet that she's had for connecting with fans in a vulnerable way. In fact, she explained that her growing prominence on social media encouraged her to open up.
"When I decided that I was going to be vocal about all of my experiences and advocate for others that don't really have a voice, I realized I had to be honest," she said. "I was like, ‘hey, I really need to work on myself,’ because if I want to help other people, I need to be able to help myself first."
The teen began going to therapy where she worked through some of the very issues that she shares in her music. The process has even allowed her to speak up about struggles that she hadn't been vocal about before.
"The one thing that I have been struggling the most with recently that I've never really opened up about, because I've been very ashamed since I was in middle school dealing with it, has been my eating disorder," she shared with the publication. "I was like, I need to write about it and so we did. The first time I heard [“Dying on the Inside”] after it was done and I played it in my car, I burst into tears. I couldn't stop crying. It was one of the most honest songs that I've ever made."
Sharing those honest songs is a cathartic experience for the singer. "I write such personal music, not only for myself, but for other people," she said, noting that she wants people "to know that it's normal and that they're not alone and that it always gets better" when it comes to mental health struggles.
Still, speaking and singing so publicly about very personal issues comes at a cost for the teen, who has received her fair share of criticism online. Even when people mean to compliment her, Barrett explains that the circumstances behind a social media post aren't always what they seem.
"A lot of people like to make remarks about your appearance, not knowing how it can affect you. It's almost like a backhanded compliment. It's like, ‘your hair looks so good. I love it way more than your last look.’ What if I missed my last hair color and I want to go back? Or it's like, ‘you're losing a lot of weight, you should really keep it up.’ That is the most damaging thing in the world to say," she said. "I feel like when I get the most compliments, it is when I'm struggling the most, because I'm trying so hard to be accepted by others."
She also acknowledges that social media can be damaging for so many people, no matter the following, especially during this rather isolating time.
"Everyone is dealing with quarantine, COVID and being stuck in the house and only being able to be on their phones. What comes with that is a lot of teens struggling with comparing themselves to all of these abnormal beauty standards that are portrayed online. It causes a lot of damage," she said. "I wanted to share my experience with [the eating disorder] that I've had, while also being able to make a song that people can relate to. Even if they don't have an eating disorder, they might still struggle with comparing themselves to other people online."
She added, "It's okay to be human."
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