Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, is one of the iconic figures of the modern era. Impressively, Kanye West has managed to rise to fame and fortune in spite of having serious mental health challenges. It’s important to note that it is considered unethical to armchair diagnose anyone with a mental health condition or disorder without having personally treated them in a counseling or medical setting.
Keeping that in mind, Kanye West has not made any secret about his mental health in both his songwriting, his interviews, statements on social media, and notably the cover of his 2018 album Ye, which features a backdrop of the Grand Teton mountain range, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with the words “I hate being / Bi-Polar / its awesome”.
Unfortunately, Kanye West has not been the most ideal spokesperson for mental health awareness. Ye regularly flip-flops from making statements about his personal struggles with mental health to making claims that he does not have mental health issues to writing lyrics including the outro lines off his track “Yikes”: “that’s my bipolar shit…That’s my superpower…ain’t no disability…I’m a superhero! I’m a superhero!”
The reality is that a mental health condition is not a superpower. A more level-headed take on mental health disorders is offered by Travis Morrison on the track entitled “Superpowers” off the 2001 album “Change” by his band The Dismemberment Plan. In the chorus of the song “Superpowers”, Morrison sings, “I guess you could call it superpowers / But no one is going to save the world with what I’ve got”.
This is a much more realistic take on mental health disorders. It’s not ableism to call a mental health condition a disability. Sure, there may be reasons why you can call your condition a “superpower” but, at the end of the day, a mental health disorder is far more of an obstacle to be overcome and a burden as opposed to a tool that helps you move more easily through the world and accomplish your personal and professional goals.
Kim K on Ye
During a difficult episode during 2020, when Kanye West was in what he has previously described as “the sunken place”, Kim Kardashian took to social media to make a statement in defense of Kanye in an attempt to plead with the public to give their family space during a difficult time.
Kim K wrote:
“As many of you know, Kanye has bi-polar disorder. Anyone who has this or has a loved one in their life who does, knows how incredibly complicated and painful it is to understand. I’ve never spoken publicly about how this has affected us at home because I am very protective of our children and Kanye’s right to privacy when it come to his health. But today, I feel like I should comment on it because of the stigma and misconceptions about mental health.
Those that understand mental illness or even compulsive behavior know that the family is powerless unless the member is a minor. People who are unaware of far removed from this experience can be judgmental and not understand that the individual themselves have to engage in the process of getting help no matter how hard family and friends try. I understand Kanye is subject to criticism because he is a public figure and his actions at times can cause strong opinions and emotions.
He is a brilliant but complicated person who on top of the pressure of being an artist and a black man, who experienced the painful loss of his mother and has to deal with the pressure and isolation that is heightened by his bi-polar disorder.
Those who are close with Kanye know his heart and understand his words some times do not align with his intentions. Living with bi-polar disorder does not diminish or invalidate his dreams and his creative ideas, no matter how big or unobtainable they may feel to some. That is part of his genius and as we have all witnessed, many of his big dreams have come true. We as a society talk about giving grace to the issue of mental health as a whole, however we should also give it to the individuals who are living with it in times when they need it the most.
I kindly ask that the media and public give us the compassion and empathy that is needed so that we can get through this. Thank you for those who have expressed concern for Kanye’s well being and for your understanding. With love and gratitude, Kim Kardashian West.”
Understanding Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar Disorder is a mood spectrum disorder that affects about 3% of the U.S. population. Bipolar I (one) differs significantly from Bipolar II (two). One major difference is that Lamotrigine (Lamictal) is often something of a “silver bullet” for managing the symptoms of Bipolar I.
Major differences include that those who struggle with Bipolar I tend to have periods of severe episodes that move between mania to depression. Bipolar II is often considered a milder form. Those with Bipolar II typically experience milder mood shifts and depressive episodes. Some with Bipolar II experience primarily hypomania which is a form of mania that is characterized by maintaining a greater sense of control even while in an elevated state.
Cyclothymia, also sometimes referred to as cyclothymic disorder, is a mood spectrum disorder that receives less attention. Cyclothymia is a disorder in which a person experiences emotional ups and downs but to a lesser extreme than those with Bipolar I or Bipolar II. It’s a somewhat controversial and rare diagnosis. Part of the reason this may be the case is that a person who has even a single full manic episode is considered to have a Bipolar diagnosis.
Misconceptions about Mania
Mania is a psychological condition that is commonly misunderstood. When you think about mania, you might think about Kanye West grabbing the mic from Taylor Swift at the Grammys. Or, you might think of the TMZ video of Kanye ranting. Or, you might think of Kanye making a quick change from rare social media posts to a flurry or social media posts including sharing personal information about himself or his family that he would otherwise keep private.
Misconceptions about mania have a similarity to the way people with limited knowledge of mental health disorders tend to misunderstand Obsessions Compulsive Disorder (OCD). With OCD, people often think of a stereotype of someone cleaning for hours on end and make unfunny jokes about how they would have such a clean house. With mania, people think that a person alphabetizing their bookshelf in the middle of the night might be somehow constructive when, in fact, manic episodes are extremely disruptive to a person’s health.
Mania is important to avoid if possible. There is a temptation for those with mood disorders to try to glean enjoyment from the “up” times since they may want to feel a sense of compensation for their “down” periods during a depressive state. The reality is that maintaining a baseline of being even is healthier and overall better for a person’s well-being and their productivity. Mania throws off a person’s functionality in a different way than depression but it remains relatively unhelpful.
In terms of physical health, manic episodes have been described as the physical equivalent of a heart attack. It goes without saying that this implies mania is extremely physically taxing on a person’s body. Mania is characterized by:
- Intense moods
- Drastic changes in how the world is perceived
- Changes in self-perception
- Inflated sense of self
- This can be perceived as charisma but also narcissism
- Delusions of grandeur
- Changes in eating habits
- This can result in rapid weight loss
There are a variety of triggers for mania and they vary from person to person. Triggers can include:
- Environmental change
- Increased stress
- Increased anxiety
- Death of a loved one
- Financial stress
- Relationship issues
- Physical illness
Some of the stereotypes of mania are real and that’s what makes them stereotypes. People who are manic sometimes spend too much money and run up credit card bills and debt. People who are experiencing mania may drive their cars too fast. When experiencing a manic episode, some individuals become hypersexual and engage in risky behavior. Other common signs and symptoms of mania can include:
- Racing thoughts
- Rapid speech
- Poor sleep
- Decreased work performance
- Easily irritated
- Easily distracted
- Difficulty focusing
- Obsessive behaviors
- Increased euphoria
- Quick to aggression
- Increased susceptibility to engaging in substance abuse
The Problem with the Concept of the “Mad Genius”
There is a longstanding temptation to glorify those in The Arts who have mental health conditions and/or substance abuse disorders. In reality, mental health issues and substance abuse disorders (SUDs) hinder performance and result in artists having to work harder than others in their field to excel. Relatedly, any person who is in recovery will tell you that drugs and alcohol did not truly benefit their work.
At the time, they may have convinced themselves that in order to produce their work they required substances. Asked in recovery, they will tell you it was simply a crutch to get them through the day and that it made their process more difficult. There are always going to be exceptions that prove the rule, but this is what makes them exceptions. It’s important not to confuse the exception for the norm.
Kanye West’s genius is not because he struggles with his mental health but in spite of his challenges. Kanye West worked incredibly hard to become an expert beat maker. He struggled for years to receive any recognition from colleagues for his ability to write his own songs. People did not take Kanye West seriously as a musician for a long time.
Kanye spent $30,000 of his own money to produce a video that would lead to finally being able to sign a deal to produce his first album The College Dropout in 2004. It’s notable to keep in mind that Kanye had been working with the biggest names in music including Jay Z and still was unable to break out on his own without using his own personal funds. Most people in the United States do not have the aforementioned $30,000 either to kickstart a new venture.
Kanye West and Mental Health Awareness
Increasingly, Kanye West is doing a better job at spreading the word that mental health issues should be taken seriously and that they are not so different from having a physical health issue.
Given Kanye’s platform as a superstar and a spokesperson for people with a strong connection to their religion and faith position him to make an significant impact on the way our society navigates mental health. Aside from the fact that, as a billionaire, Kanye West could personally donate funds towards mental health research and causes, Ye is in a stellar position to preach about accepting those with mental health conditions and taking away the stigma that society places on individuals who struggle and become marginalized.
A great success story would be for Kanye West to get his mental health under control and speak openly about his struggles in a consistent way with positive messaging. New generations look to celebrities like Kanye West as an influencer and he could make huge waves in how those with mental health disorders are treated by others in society.
As the Covid-19 pandemic becomes endemic, those in the mental health field see another pandemic unfolding. This second pandemic is a wave of mental health concerns that is disproportionately affecting millennials, Gen Z, and Gen Alpha, who are growing up in an increasingly frightening world. Mental health services have never been more needed. Greta Thunberg has become the face of climate change after replacing Al Gore. Kanye West could easily become the face of a powerful mental health awareness initiative if he chooses to focus his energy on helping those with similar experiences who look to him as a source of inspiration.