At the start of the week, Kanye West held a last-minute Presidential rally in South Carolina. It didn’t go well. He ranted against abortion and pornography, argued policy with attendees and at one point broke down in tears. Specifically, he made claims that Harriet Tubman, political activist and abolitionist “never actually freed the slaves” and “she just had the slaves work for other white people”.
Harriet Tubman is one of the most respected figures of 19th century America. An African American who escaped slavery, she helped enslaved Black men and women travel north to freedom and fought for the Union during the Civil War.
The crowd was already confused and shocked, until Kanye said that his wife, Kim Kardashian, had wanted their now 7-year-old, North, but he originally hadn’t. However, he believed that he had an intervention from God which made Kim refuse an abortion: “she stood up for herself and protected that baby”. He broke down in tears and went on to tell the audience that his parents almost aborted him but his mother had refused. Kanye also suggested that women should be given $1m when they have a baby.
Kanye followed the event with a series of erratic tweets in which he claimed to me trying to get divorced from Kim, and that she and her mother “Kris Jong Un” were trying to have him “locked up”.
The event, which was live-streamed on YouTube was soon blasted across social media and publications of the world. Most publications reported the rally as “chaotic” and “a mess”, calling Kayne “drunk with power” and he was widely criticised on Twitter. However, a percentage of those watching could see Kanye’s performance for what it really was: a manic bipolar episode, played out on the world’s stage.
Kanye West has never been silent about his mental health struggles, but this was the first time it had been seen live, shared and opined on widely. His wife Kim released a statement which explained how “complicated and painful” bipolar is to understand, and that Kanye’s “words do not always align with his intentions”.
What Is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings. These swings can be categorised into being high / low, both of which can last for several weeks. Previously known as ‘manic depression’, bipolar is hard to define and is not a one-size-fits-all disorder. In some cases, a person may be diagnosed with depression, before having a manic episode which may occur years later, before being diagnosed properly with bipolar disorder.
During a manic phase of bipolar disorder, a person may:
- Feel very happy
Have lots of energy, ambitious plans and ideas
- Spend large amounts of money on things
Not feel like eating or sleeping
- Talk quickly
- Feel very creative and view the manic phase of bipolar as a positive experience
However, someone with bipolar can also experience symptoms of psychosis, where they may see or hear things that are not there or become convinced of things that are not true.
Affecting one in 100 people, if a person is not treated, episodes of bipolar-related mania can last for between 3 and 6 months. Episodes of depression tend to last longer, often six to 12 months. Treatments for bipolar include mood stabilisers to manage intense emotions, knowing the triggers of what sets off an episode, psychologist-led therapy and lifestyle changes, including exercise and diet. If a person is at risk of harm to themselves or others, in some cases they could be sections under the Mental Health Act (in the UK).
Someone’s Mental Health Isn’t A Joke For Likes and Retweets
It’s not my place to talk about Kanye’s specific circumstances or treatment, nor anyone else’s, but what I do want to talk about is the concerning way we speak about serious mental health problems when it’s something ‘out of the norm’. I was shocked and upset to see some of the comments about him on social media. To my mind, if you’re making fun of him, or criticising him, you’re not taking into account the complexity of his illness.
To those who laughed at him, I say – where is your compassion? Kanye needs it right now, just like Britney did. Just like Amanda Bynes did.
If you (or someone close to you) is aware that someone is unwell and you’re taking the opportunity to quickly think of an offensive joke to tweet out, I would highly suggest…not doing that? It appears to me that poor mental health can become a joke, when we go beyond surface-level knowledge about common anxiety disorders, virtue-signalling #BeKind and repeating “it’s okay not to be okay” on a loop. Poor mental health is ugly, sad, bad, often dangerous and seeing Kanye up there on the stage highlights this very fact.
We need to be compassionate and understanding, even when someone’s mental health dissolves into something that we simultaneously don’t want to see, but can’t look away from, like a car crash. Just because the way a person displays their symptoms is not as socially acceptable as the generalised anxiety and depression we see online and are used to, does not invalidate them and does not make them ripe for ridicule.
Mental Health Advocates are we? We’ve got a long way to go.