We Have to Be Careful With How We Talk About Kanye West
Many of West's comments are upsetting—but the way we discuss the rapper's behaviour, tweets and mental health is important
Since Kanye West announced on July 5 that he’s running for President of the United States in the upcoming election, there’s been a lot of confusion around the facts of his campaign. Like, for one, is he actually even eligible to run? And while yes, *technically* the famous rapper can run for the highest political office in the U.S., it doesn’t necessarily mean that he is running—mainly because he appears to have still failed to fill out the necessary paperwork—or that he should run. And if his lack of experience, nonexistent campaign plan and comedic choice of party name (The Birthday Party…) aren’t enough to convince people that the musician should stay out of political office, his latest comments probably will. On July 19, during a campaign rally in South Carolina to get his name on the state’s ballot, Ye made some controversial and harmful comments to those in attendance, with videos showing West discrediting and making factually inaccurate statements about historical figure Harriet Tubman, saying that Tubman—who helped free enslaved people in the United States via The Underground Railroad—“never actually freed the slaves, she just had them work for other white people”. He also spoke about how he and wife Kim Kardashian West considered aborting their first child, North West. When talking about abortion, as well as the fact that his father wanted his mother to have an abortion when she was pregnant with him, West became visibly upset, shouting: “I almost killed my daughter! I almost killed my daughter!” [FLARE has chosen not to embed these videos.]
In videos of the event, those in attendance can be heard groaning and yelling back at the rapper. And as footage of the campaign rally started trickling out, outlets like TMZ reported on the “wild” and “off-the-rails” gathering. And while it’s natural for people to be both upset with West’s comments as well as kind of perplexed by them (because, what the heck?), it’s important that fans and media outlets alike approach his behaviour with caution. In 2018, West revealed that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and shortly after his rally, people online began speculating that perhaps the rapper’s mental health is contributing to his somewhat erratic behaviour, with TMZ reporting that West’s family is very concerned for his mental health and well-being.
Kanye West is bipolar. His tears aren't a joke. Stop feeding into this news story.
— Katy Stoll (@katystoll) July 20, 2020
And it’s because of his mental illness that we have to be sensitive when talking about West and his presidential campaign—both IRL and online. Here’s why.
First of all, what Kanye West is saying *is* harmful
To be clear, West’s latest comments are upsetting and harmful. While some on Twitter have speculated that West was misunderstood in stating that Harriet Tubman didn’t free enslaved people (with one Twitter user saying that he thinks the rapper was trying to illustrate that she freed enslaved people from slavery but not from systemic racism), the fact of the matter is that it’s incredibly dismissive, as well as factually inaccurate, to state that Tubman didn’t free enslaved people. It also completely discredits an incredibly important woman in history, and an entire movement. Tubman, per The Guardian, “is one of the most respected figures of 19th century America.” As an African American woman who escaped slavery herself, she in turn helped enslaved Black men and women travel north to freedom via The Underground Railroad. She later fought for the Union during the Civil War and even became a supporter of women’s suffrage. So she’s a pretty big freakin’ deal and a heroic woman who put her life on the line continuously so that enslaved people could reach freedom. West’s recent comments harken back to his infamous 2018 rant at TMZ‘s offices, during which he said that “slavery was a choice.”
When it comes to the rapper’s comments about abortion, it’s honestly not much better. Throughout his career, West had made several comments against abortion. During his latest rally, he used religion as the motivator for these opinions, telling the crowd that when he and then-girlfriend Kim Kardashian West were debating whether or not to continue with her first pregnancy, the rapper had a message from God…literally. Telling the crowd that he was living the “rapper lifestyle,” West said one day he was sitting at his computer “and the screen went black and white and God said, ‘if you fuck with my vision I’m going to fuck with yours.'” Talking about Kardashian West, who Ye says then told him she was not going to terminate the pregnancy, he said: “She brought North into the world when I didn’t want to. She stood up and she protected that child.”
Which is *a lot* to unpack. First things first, no one has a say over what a woman does with her body except that woman—and that includes her right to choose whether or not she’d like to continue with a pregnancy. So good for KKW for making the decision for herself (of course, it’s important to note that not all people have the the same financial security to make the same decision). But also, West’s framing of KKW’s decision to continue her pregnancy as her “protecting” their child? Yeah, that’s super problematic because it inherently paints people who decide to have an abortion as not protecting their child, which is an example of scientifically inaccurate rhetoric that anti-choice activists continually spew. Also, pretty sure it won’t be fun for North to read about the fact that her dad didn’t want KKW to go through with the pregnancy.
And equally true is the fact that Kanye West has bipolar disorder
While the problematic nature of West’s comments is a fact, it’s also factual that the rapper has had mental health issues. West’s mental health is something that has been largely discussed and debated since about 2016 when the rapper was put on an involuntary psychiatric hold. In 2018, West shared with fans that he’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder on his album Ye. In a May 2019 interview with David Letterman on his Netflix series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, West said that he was speaking out about his diagnosis because of a “strong stigma” around mental health.
And this discussion surrounding his mental health seems to be something that West himself is very aware of, with the musician telling the South Carolina crowd of the media coverage for the event: “They’re going to run this, they’re going to tell you that I’m crazy. Well the world’s crazy!”
Kanye West could be experiencing a manic episode
First of all, people with mental illnesses are not crazy. And secondly, despite seemingly trying to speak to the contrary, the truth is that West could very well be undergoing a manic episode. The day after his controversial rally, on July 20, West took to Twitter in a tirade, tweeting numerous times about his appearance in South Carolina, his family and people in the industry like Drake and Vogue EIC Anna Wintour. In since-deleted tweets, West seemingly alluded to the state of his mental health as well as his family’s concern for it, tweeting: “Kim was trying to fly to Wyoming with a doctor to lock me up like on the movie Get Out because I cried about saving my daughter’s life yesterday,” before sharing a text conversation with Kris Jenner, in which West asked Jenner if she was still avoiding the rapper’s calls.
While bipolar disorder can affect people differently, typically people who have been diagnosed with the disorder experience extreme mood swings that include emotional highs (known as mania or hypomania) and lows (depression). “[With more of the classical bipolar disorder], we find that people, when they’re in what’s called a manic episode, demonstrate an abnormally and persistently elevated, grandiose and very expansive mood,” says Dr. Saunia Ahmad, a clinical psychologist and director of the Toronto Psychology Clinic. And this outward symptom reflects what Ahmad says is going on internally. “Internally what’s going on for them, is often that there’s a real speed at which their mind is running as well, too.” Because of this “flight of ideas,” and inflated self-esteem and grandiosity, Ahmad says people in a manic episode can appear much more talkative. “Some people tend to talk a lot, but you can actually kind of intervene and say, ‘just take a moment,’ and give them that feedback,” she says. “A person who’s really in a full blown manic episode may not be able to hear you because their mind is racing; and when your mind is racing you can’t really pick up on what someone’s saying.”
While Ahmad says that we obviously don’t know the ins-and-outs of West’s diagnosis, and only know what we’re presented with publicly, “there is the suggestion that when he’s saying things he’s not taking in the full repercussions,” she says. While some may think that being out of touch with reality is a symptom of schizophrenia, this can also be a symptom of bipolar disorder, thanks to these racing and fleeting thoughts. “Because people are having racing thoughts, in a way their mind is not fully on the ground. It’s up in the air, so to speak, and they’re not in touch with what’s really going on,” Ahmad says. “They’re not able to listen to people, and in what they’re saying, they might be saying things that are not accurate.” Ahmad says these tendencies can be managed by medication, and help people “come back to reality” and think differently about their actions and comments. “At the moment, if they’re in a manic episode, they may be saying, or doing things that are not necessarily accurate and they can end up offending people as a result.”
Which sounds pretty applicable to West, TBH.
Kanye West’s bipolar diagnosis isn’t an excuse for his actions and comments—but it needs to be considered
But despite his diagnosis and history of mental health issues, many people online are having a difficult time balancing his harmful comments with being mindful of his mental health. As many have so aptly pointed out, while conversations around West’s mental health history and current state are circulating, his views on abortion and other controversial topics are not necessarily new, and many felt they shouldn’t be attributed solely to his mental health.
As Twitter user Matthew Chapman tweeted: “Yes, Kanye West is mentally ill. But he’s also a virulent misogynist, and mental illness didn’t make him that way.”
Yes, Kanye West is mentally ill. But he's also a virulent misogynist, and mental illness didn't make him that way.
At some point, excusing his behavior is offensive to people with mental illness.
— Matthew Chapman (@fawfulfan) July 20, 2020
Which is true—it’s unlikely that West’s controversial worldview was formed out of the blue based on his diagnosis, but it would be incorrect to think that his bipolar disorder doesn’t play a role in shaping them and furthering his actions. Thanks to those racing thoughts that can occur during manic episodes, “he is just spitting out a lot of words,” Ahmad says of West. “He’s saying a lot of things without being able to reflectively think through them.” Which isn’t great, because, as Ahmad points out, “when you have racing thoughts, you’re not able to engage with people around you; and if you’re not able to engage with people, you can’t correct your thoughts.”
While Ahmad says that we have to acknowledge West’s point of view is and can be very harmful,, especially to people who have experienced anti-Black racism, “I’d also be compassionate towards Kanye West,” she adds. “If indeed what he’s saying is a reflection of his manic episode, people in a manic episode will say a lot of things because of their bipolar disorder. It’s not that they truly think it and they’re censoring it. They are just saying a lot of things because they’re out of touch with reality. He’s not probably in his right mind right now.”
For Ahmad, it’s not about excusing West’s behaviour—which she says is not excusable—but about understanding it, in order to help him. ”If we understand it, if we do become aware that he was in a manic episode, we can possibly understand that he’s probably not someone who should be in the public eye right now.” And this isn’t only because of his own mental health, but that of his fans. “He has a lot of power and influence,” she says. “He’s quite a celebrity and has a lot of followers. So we have to appreciate and respect that when people hear what he says—especially in the given climate that we have right now—what he’s saying is going to be hurtful.” Ultimately, Ahmad says it’s important to both acknowledge that what he’s saying is harmful and hurtful, but also important to encourage him to take a break and to seek treatment. “If [he] continues doing [what he’s doing], it’s just going to cause a lot of people grief.”
We need to be careful about how we talk about mental health
When talking about West and his mental health, it’s important that we consider how our perceptions and comments about him may reflect or affect others who have mental health issues. Which is why it’s harmful to make comments about Ye being “crazy,” blame his comments entirely on his bipolar diagnosis or take this entire thing as a joke or some elaborate album roll-out—because that diminishes the severity of what he’s seemingly experiencing.
Pray for Ye, this ain’t funny.
— The Kei (@keiopensdoors) July 21, 2020
“If indeed this is a reflection, very likely so, of a manic episode, other people with mental health illnesses will feel a lot of shame if they hear the public saying, ‘Oh God, what a nutcase,’ or ‘how dare he say something like this,'” Ahmad says. The best way to address the situation, Ahmad advises, is to model the very behaviour that we’re trying to work towards as a society when it comes to mental health overall: identifying actions as a mental health issue and advising people to seek out professional help—free of stigma. And this lack of stigma is especially important when it comes to people like West, who is a Black man; a community for which mental health struggles and seeking help for mental illness has historically been stigmatized.
What's happening with Kanye isn't funny or a joke. Mental health struggles are REAL and there's such a stigma, especially in the Black community. Do better and stop laughing.
— Ashley Alese Edwards (@AshleyAlese) July 21, 2020
The most important thing to remember is that compassion is key. “Appreciate that there is an illness; and just like we’d be so empathic if someone broke their leg and they couldn’t stand, we need to be equally empathic if someone is demonstrating a symptom of a mental health issue, that if indeed that is what he’s dealing with, we hope that he seeks out help,” says Ahmad.
Ultimately, Kanye West needs those around him to take care of him
While, at least from West’s latest tweets, it seems like the rapper’s family *is* concerned for his well-being and trying to help him, it’s hard not to think about the Kardashian-Jenner family that he’s involved with. If you’re asking yourself how West—if he is unwell—could get to the point of speaking at a very public campaign rally, you’re probably not alone. “There is some entertainment value,” Ahmad says of the hype around West right now. “If he was coming out and saying something sensible, would he be given that much media attention?” While it’s dark to speculate about whether West’s family could be somehow using his mental health for their reality show, the fact that he’s seemingly unraveled so publicly, and the fact that the famous family is known for setting up storylines using sensitive, personal experiences, lends itself to *some* skepticism about how those around West are caring for him.
Ultimately, West does appears to need help. “If someone is in a full blown manic episode, at some point they’re not able to consent for their own treatment [and] someone else has to take over,” Ahmad says. In Ontario, someone in a serious manic episode can be mandated into treatment, “because the idea is that if you are that out of touch with reality, you’re not able to make that decision for yourself,” Ahmad says. This means that if a person is concerned that a family member may be a risk to themselves or others, they can request a Form 2 via a justice of the peace. This form allows police to take said person to a hospital for assessment; at which point, a physician will assess the person to see if they should be put on a Form 1 (under which a person must remain at the hospital for evaluation for 72 hours). In the United States, unless your family member is already receiving care from a physician, the family is instructed to contact 911 in cases of mental health emergencies. (It’s important to note that calling the police for mental health crises isn’t the best or safest option for everyone).
Whatever happens, we’re hoping that West receives the help he needs.