This teachable moment brought to you by Yeezy himself
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
Kanye West has been in the news for all the wrong reasons this week. His presidential bid, the odd rant at his “campaign rally” and the unusual thought pattern he has repeatedly demonstrated are on full display to an audience of billions. Many people have started wondering what could be going on for him to cause this kind of eccentric and erratic behaviour. Media outlets are giving a lot of focus to him while he feeds the frenzy. Given the generally slower pace of things in the era of COVID 19 and BLM, there is a lot of time to focus on what the “rich and famous” have been up to. However, as we do so, it is important that we don’t lose the teachable moment evident in this situation. It is time to talk about mental illness from a place of compassion and the desire to de-stigmatize rather than ridicule.
Kanye West has shared that he has a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder although the sub-type, (yes, there are different types), has not been released. He shared with David Letterman in May of 2019 that he has struggled with the condition and described what a manic episode is like. He describes the delusions, paranoia he experienced and the stigma around mental illness. However, this is just one iteration of his condition. It is not uncommon for those who struggle with a psychiatric diagnosis like bipolar disorder to experience delusions of grandeur and reckless behaviour. This disorder usually cycles between mania and depression, with manic phases lasting at least a week.
Kanye’s situation is visible to everyone with an internet connection and a social media account. I want to put forward the idea that there are regular, every day people who struggle with exactly the same issue with very different outcomes in their communities. I am writing this piece to talk a little bit more about them.
According to the World Health Organisation’s 2019 count, approximately 45 million people worldwide are affected by bipolar disorder. That is a lot of people. Put into context, the entire population of Canada is approximately 36 million people. There are more people struggling with this one diagnosis globally than there are people in the second largest country by landmass on earth. It is likely that most of us have known someone directly who has this diagnosis or, has known someone whose loved one has it. I know for a fact that I do. However, stigma makes us very uncomfortable in talking about this issue in particular and about mental illness in general. That means that for most of the people who struggle with bipolar disorder, there is no support as they can't even talk freely about their distress. Imagine how isolating that would be if the person struggling were you. How would you feel if your family members were so ashamed of what you were going through that they didn't make you feel safe enough to talk about your experiences?
If an illness affects millions and millions of people across populations, why are we so hesitant to have open discussions about it? We talk about cancer, hypertension, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and a long list of other illnesses without stigmatizing the people who have it. We have empathy or at the very least, sympathy for them. We don’t ridicule someone fighting cancer so what is it about mental illness that makes people so mean spirited? We don’t make movies that portray people with cancer as these “unhinged” and “dangerous” beings set on the destruction of self and others so why do we do this to those with mental health concerns?
Part of this, in my most humble opinion, is because psychology as a discipline has failed to recognise that those of us within the field have failed to educate the general public, media content creators and teachers accurately. We have tended to keep our discussions about mental health to either ourselves or within academic spaces that are far removed from the lived realities of most of the world’s population. We neglect our ethical principle of social responsibility on a scale outside our immediate therapy rooms, halls of learning or conferences. We, as a profession, have miserably failed society.
Notice that doctors talk about all kinds of illnesses in easily accessible public forums all over the world. There are numerous campaigns aimed at de-stigmatizing HIV/AIDS globally which have now seen a shift away from the revulsion that accompanied the illness in the 1970’s and 1980’s towards simply seeing it as a chronic illness, just like heart disease and kidney problems. If they can raise public awareness in the media about these issues, why can’t mental health practitioners?
Why do we mental health practitioners quietly critique a misguided media from the safety of our porches rather than engage in productive dialogue in the public space? Why haven’t we engaged more actively in releasing public service announcements to help people overcome oppressive, fear-based, false, preconceived notions about mental illness? Until we are willing to look at the ways that we could and should be doing better, situations like this where a legitimately ill person is ridiculed for something they cannot control will continue. How many more have to suffer before we get off our collective posterior and actually do something for the good of humanity? How many more will choose to die by their own hand like Kate Spade, Kurt Cobain and Ernest Hemingway?
At what point will the mental health community decide enough is enough and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves? THAT is what it really means to “de-stigmatize mental illness”. It is also what it means to truly serve our populations in a manner that is ethical and compassionate.