By: Hunter Keegan, Author & Advocate
Last week the ever-controversial Kanye West went on a series of distressed tirades.
His statements ranged from uncomfortably self-centered to blatantly insensitive. On a literal stage, he overshared private information about his family (including a tearful announcement that he once had considered having one of his children aborted). He was displaying symptoms of a severe mental health crisis. There were even rumors that his family had made attempts at placing him on a psychiatric hold for his own safety.
Naturally, this was all highly publicized by news outlets.
Throughout this process he confused and angered millions of people for a myriad of reasons. One of the groups that was concerned by his statements was the bipolar community.
Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes people to swing between extreme mania and depression. While I am bipolar myself, I cannot speak on behalf of all people who live with this disease. However, I know that Kanye West’s actions tend to be of interest to myself and others familiar with forms of serious mental illness (SMI) and it’s well worth articulating why.
Since releasing his 2018 album “Ye,” which featured the phrase “I hate being bi-polar [sic] it’s awesome” on the center of its cover, Kanye West has been the subject of much interest and concern among people with bipolar disorder. Many fans saw the album’s cover as a confirmation of what had long been suspected about West: That he suffers from serious mental illness (SMI), specifically bipolar disorder, and was working to overcome this aspect of his life.
Some, like me, even hoped that perhaps he was seeking to destigmatize mental illness and bring attention to treatment for SMI.
However, just months later he confusingly stated that he had stopped taking medication for bipolar disorder. He said that felt that he wasn’t actually bipolar.
Shortly thereafter he had a spiritual awakening wherein he embraced his Christian beliefs to the extent that he decided to scrap other musical projects he was working on. Instead he decided to release a hastily composed album album entirely centered around his religious beliefs. He titled the album, “Jesus Is King.”
Kanye West’s relationship with his own mental health appears to be inconsistent. In his art, Kanye often references mental health — I even quoted one of his songs, “FML,” in my own book about bipolar disorder! This is why his actions are compelling to people who live with various forms of SMI. Many of us find it easy to relate to the strange and sometimes disastrous headspaces mental illness can take you to. We find hope in his successes and tragedy in his failures.
When Kanye West erupts like he did last week, numerous posts speculating about his mental health begin showing up on internet forums and other media. We begin fearing for his safety and fearing for the safety of the SMI community.
Our preoccupation with Kanye is not solely out of the spectacle of his actions, his fame, or his notoriety. Our concern also becomes: Will this blowback affect all of us?
A core mission that myself and many others with SMI actively work toward is destigmatizing SMI. Instead of focusing only on the negative aspects of diseases like bipolar disorder, we seek to educate the general public about what it’s like to live with SMI on a daily basis. We work to show people that our diseases are real, treatable, and are not a death sentence.
One of the primary reasons we work toward this goal is in order to be taken seriously. Because many people misunderstand the nature of hidden disabilities like bipolar disorder, educating the public and destigmatizing mental illness is paramount.
While having celebrity spokespeople can bring attention to lesser known topics such as bipolar disorder, they’re also double-edged swords. When people like West have ambiguous relationships with such sensitive subject matter, the resulting discourse is often distracting and counterproductive. Even harmful.
When I see high profile figures like Kanye West embracing the label of “being bipolar” and bringing attention to it, I naturally become excited. But I become frustrated when I see the same high profile figure backtracking on such statements and effectively muddling conversations surrounding SMI. I think this notion is shared by many in the bipolar community. This is because we, the group of people with this dangerous disease, are directly impacted when mainstream media begin haphazardly introducing buzz words like “manic” or “bipolar” or “certifiable” or “psychotic.”
The reasoning behind Kanye West’s rants from last week is, perhaps, known only to West himself. He could have been experiencing mania. Or maybe he was intoxicated. Or maybe he was experiencing symptoms of a different type of mental illness altogether.
Because we don’t know — and we can’t know — we have to leave it up to West to spearhead his own narrative. He has claimed to be part of our unique community, yet has gone on to actively disrupt the conversations around this complex disorder … and it’s upsetting.
The public deterioration of a celebrity who has, at times, spoken about being bipolar and how it’s “awesome” is toxic. My hope is that West goes on to speak more about his relationship with his mental health and clarify some of the problematic statements that he’s recently made. I hope that he will provide context and explain what was behind his meltdowns and that he will hold himself accountable and relay those thoughts in a coherent and tactful way that supports the SMI community.
Most of all, I hope that he is able to get healthy and keep his life on track (or, if you prefer, get it back on track). No healthy person wants to get themselves hurt, and no healthy person wants to hurt their community.
Read more about Hunter Keegan and purchase his book, My Brain Is Trying to Kill Me at the following: https://www.hhkeegan.com/.