Opinion

Mental health privilege: “The reactions to Kanye West highlight a big problem with the way society sees mental illness”

Posted by
Lauren Geall
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Kanye West

As Matt Haig perfectly explained in a now-viral Instagram post, the social media conversation about Kanye West’s bipolar disorder shows society must learn to condemn actions, not people.

If you’ve been keeping up with the news over the last week or so, you’ll likely have seen the series of reports about Kanye West’s mental health.

West has spoken openly about his mental health in the past – he previously referred to his bipolar diagnosis as a “superpower” – but following a series of erratic tweets and an emotional and sometimes erratic appearance at his first presidential campaign rally on 20 July, the conversation about West’s mental state has once again taken centre stage on social media.

The main talking point centred around the series of controversial statements West made both in his tweets (which have since been deleted) and during his rally. Most notably, he asserted that the famous abolitionist Harriet Tubman “never actually freed the slaves, she just had the slaves go work for other white people,” and made a series of incoherent statements about abortion and faith. The erratic, passionate nature of his address led people to speculate the star is going through a manic episode – a common symptom of bipolar disorder. 

As was to be expected, many people took to social media to call out West’s comments, with videos of his speech quickly going viral. This is, of course, completely legitimate. But at the same time, criticising West as a person without acknowledging the role his mental health has to play in this is deeply problematic. Why? Because when we criticise West’s actions without contextualising them as a symptom of his mental illness, we add to the stigma people face on a daily basis. Mental health privilege exists – shaming people won’t help anyone. 

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It’s an issue which mental health advocate and author Matt Haig pointed out in an Instagram post last week, in which he called for his followers to be more understanding of those whose condition causes them to behave in a way which may be seen as uncomfortable or “difficult”. 

“People call anyone who talks about mental illness brave and brilliant, even as they publicly condone and mock anyone who acts in a way that exhibits mental illness,” he wrote. “Kanye has talked about his bipolar plenty. Then he has another public bipolar episode and Twitter sets ablaze with mockery and self-righteousness. All those self-congratulatory tweets saying ‘mental illness aren’t a reason for doing/saying something shitty’. Well, sometimes it is precisely the reason.”

Haig continued: “If you condemn the person with bipolar on a strange rant, if you condemn the addict who has broken the law, if you condemn the depressed person who has done something desperate to ward off depression, you are not helping prevent that behaviour. You are just stigmatising those people further, and alienation fuels those behaviours.

“We need to realise that not everyone has control of their minds in precisely the same way. There is mental health privilege. And you display it by being ignorant of how pain can manifest itself in behaviour. This is not about condoning bad behaviour. It is about understanding it.”

Haig added that we need “more forgiveness, understanding and healing” to allow those who are dealing with mental ill health to develop the self-compassion they need to seek help for themselves.

“I can’t think of one person I know who has had a serious mental illness – including me – who hasn’t been bloody difficult or toxic at some point,” Haig concluded. “Condemn behaviour, not people. Shame is not medicine.”

What West’s situation has made clear – and what Haig has perfectly explained in his Instagram post – is that the conversation about mental health has not gone far enough. Sure, as a society, we’ve come a long way when it comes to destigmatising common mental health problems, but as soon as someone exhibits symptomatic behaviour which is seen as “uncomfortable,” “toxic” or “selfish,” people are much less willing to show that person compassion. 

Haig is right – it’s OK to call out West’s behaviour as offensive – but we must also work to understand where that behaviour is coming from, and resist the urge to criticise and ‘cancel’ a person whose mental health is causing them to act in an uncomfortable or difficult way.

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When we fail to provide those who are struggling with the necessary support and belittle and criticise them for their actions, we simultaneously fail to recognise the source of their behaviour and put in place systems which will help that person to understand and manage their mental health in the future.

If we want to tackle the stigma faced by those who struggle with their mental health, we need to understand that mental illness doesn’t always present in a palatable or straightforward way. Mental illness is messy, uncomfortable and complex – and that’s exactly why we need to talk about it.

If you are struggling with bipolar disorder, Samaritans (116 123) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org. 

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Lauren Geall

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