Conditions like bipolar disorder are widely misunderstood and mocked—which is why people have such a hard time understanding Kanye West right now. Following his recent commentary on President Trump, slavery, and his decision to run for presidential office, many mental health care professionals have urged the media to reconsider their approach in covering the celebrity. West, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 39, was also seen ranting about his struggle in contemplating his daughter’s abortion. It appears that such statements were made in the throes of a manic episode, which may not justify but certainly explains his behavior. While we may be skeptical of his behavior, which is certainly problematic at times, discounting the reality of the situation is a disservice to those who suffer from severe mental illnesses.
A Major Disconnect
According to Forbes, “approximately 11% of our global population suffers from a mental illness at any given time, and over 60 million people in the USA suffer from mental illness in a given year.” Bipolar disorder affects mood stability and isn’t unlike crashing waves of manic and depressive episodes. Interestingly, the illness is often associated with genius and creativity. Symptoms include irritability, the sensation of “racing” thoughts, euphoria, grandiosity, arrogance, spending sprees, pressured speech, inability to sleep, and poor judgment.
Those who struggle with serious mental illnesses face the challenges of coping with direct symptoms along with societal stigma. This dual-taxation can actually reduce the chances of recovery. Along with being robbed of the chance to maintain a stable lifestyle, those who suffer from severe mental illnesses are also discouraged from seeking care and guidance. Too often, people with mental illnesses such as bipolar are misunderstood and mocked as “crazy.” This is especially true in regards to women with bipolar disorder, like celebrities Demi Lovato and the late Carrie Fisher, while men such as Kanye are otherwise judged a “mad genius.”
As shared by psychological scientist Patrick W. Corrigan, the stigmatization and discrimination of a mental illness may “indeed be as disabling as the illness itself.” Living in the public spotlight as West does certainly intensifies dual-taxation. As Business Insider points out, “when people are introduced to those behaviors, it’s usually through mocking or reveling in a celebrity’s strange behavior — like Kanye’s current struggle, Britney Spears’ experience with bipolar, or the continued idolization of deceased bipolar artists like Jimi Hendrix and Sylvia Plath.”
In 2016, West was hospitalized for bipolar disorder for about a week at the UCLA Medical Center. In 2018, he released an album bearing the phrase, “I hate being bipolar. It’s awesome.” West also discussed with David Letterman on a Netflix show in 2019 what mania is like: “When you’re in this state, you’re hyper-paranoid about everything. . . . Everything’s a conspiracy. You feel the government is putting chips in your head. You feel you’re being recorded. You feel all these things.”
The general response to more severe mental illnesses has been to breed ignorance rather than mindful awareness. One example of this exclusion is the argument that mental illness does not force people to act or speak offensively—something that was continually stressed on social media in regards to West’s recent behavior. If a mental illness makes it abnormally difficult for a person to discern right from wrong, they may exhibit concerning behavior or convey hurtful and problematic sentiments. However, this does not cement them as a bad person—nor does it rob them of the road towards accountability and healing. In short, the illness does not define the person who is suffering its symptoms. Bipolar disorder is a factor in some people’s reality that should not be discounted or used as justification for their actions, however, episodes of mental illness, particularly public ones, should be destigmatized.