Author: Wessel de Cock
‘See, that’s my third person. That’s my bipolar shit [..] that’s my superpower, ain’t no disability, I am a superhero! I am a superhero!’, rapped the American rapper Kanye West on the song ‘Yikes’, from his 2018 album ‘Ye’. As arguably the most famous artist of the past decade, Kanye his statements immediately became subject to a fierce debate in both traditional media as on social media online. On the one hand there were critics that argued that Kanye his statements ‘glamorized or mischaracterized’ mental disorders and could ‘trivialize the seriousness of the condition’ while also preventing other people with similar disorders from seeking treatment. Others, however, praised the song and Kanye’s subsequent statements as a ‘reflection of his neurodiversity’. Initially it were mostly scientific experts as therapists, psychiatrists, and neuroscientists who gave their opinion on Kanye’s statements, but eventually, especially on online media, people who were diagnosed with bipolar disorder themselves began writing in either critique or support of Kanye’s revelations.
That the public conversation after the release of an album of Kanye West was not so much about the music, but more about his person is not entirely surprising for people who have been following the controversial Chicago-born music producer. With the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010, the scandal with the VMA-awards and Taylor Swift was still fresh in many people’s memory and during the release of the Life of Pablo in 2016, Kanye made headlines with his announcement of support for Donald Trump. The complete focus on Kanye his widely published involuntary hospitalization in a psychiatric clinic two years earlier, following the release of ‘Ye’ in Juli 2018, was, however, something unprecedented. It was very much fuelled by Kanye himself, who placed ‘I hate being Bipolar, it’s Awesome’ on the front of the album cover, and on social media drew additionally attention to his diagnosis with a series of tweets in which he explained that ‘no one would ever choose to end up in a mental hospital and diagnosed with a mental disorder but god chose me to publicly go through this journey and it is beautiful’. In an interview with the popular talk show host, Dave Letterman he went into an even deeper account of his experience by saying that ‘they handcuffed’ and ‘drugged’ him and ‘put him on a bed separated from everyone he knew’.
The album cover of Ye (2018).
In the same interview with Letterman, he further specified that his diagnosis let him ‘experience first-hand how people who have mental health issues get written off by society’. According to him, people ‘cut your sentences off halfway’, say ‘don’t listen to him cause he’s crazy’ and ‘what you say doesn’t mean as much.’ On his experience with the disorder itself, he noted that he felt ‘hyper-paranoid’ and noting that ‘everything can feel as though it’s a “conspiracy”’. At the same time, he explained his creativity as the direct result of his disorder. ‘If you want these crazy ideas and these crazy stages, this crazy music, and this crazy way of thinking, there’s a chance it might come from a crazy person’.
In an excellent article for the Daily Beast, Tanya Basu, problematized the widespread notion in society that ‘creativity stems from mental illness’. As she notes, Kanye had long subscribed to the idea that creativity is directly linked to mental illness, even before being ‘officially’ diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2018. On his 2016 album The Life of Pablo he rapped: ‘name one genius that ain’t crazy, I’ve been outta my mind a long time’ and ‘you ain’t never seen nothing crazier than This n***a when he is off his Lexapro’. As Batu notes, historians and anthropologists have showed that this ‘myth of the tortured genius’ goes down deep in history from ‘Vincent Van Gogh to Ernest Hemingway to Amy Winehouse’ and neuroscientist and psychologists as well have disproven this notion in empirical studies, as an overview study that was published in Clinical Psychology Review in 2010 shows. Whereas Basu rightly praises Kanye for ‘taking ownership of his bipolar disorder and making it his superpower’, she notes that the ‘tricky aspect’ is that he does this by ‘embracing the tortured genius’, effectively taking over a societal stigma.
Although Kanye had, probably in anticipation of the critique that would follow, already defended his statements by arguing that people should ‘stop looking at my tweets as rants and start looking at them as therapy testimonials’, a discussion broke out anyway. While American online media mostly invited psychologists, therapists and scientists to explain what exactly was a bipolar disorder, which ‘types’ it could take and how expressed in Kanye’s behavior, more interestingly, many people who were diagnosed with a bipolar disorder took, or received, a platform to give their opinion on Kanye’s statements regarding bipolar disorder.
In an interview with the Huffington Post Katie Conibear, 33, said she likes it a lot to see ‘someone so high profile speak openly and honestly about their experience’. Noting that she found it ‘terrifying to start talking about some of the more severe sides of the condition, like psychosis and mania’, she hopes that Kanye’s reveal will ‘sparks more in-depth discussion on what bipolar is’. Although Eki Igbinoba, 22, from London and also diagnosed with bipolar, was more critical on Kanye’s past ‘nonsense’, she at the same time praised that he as a ‘straight black man opens up in such a vulnerable way is necessary and I’m proud of him, especially considering mental health isn’t really associated with rappers/hip hop artists’. Another positive reaction came from Mike Vosters, who noted that he hoped that Kanye ‘calling bipolar a superpower’ would ‘change the entire connotation of the word’. He explained how an earlier, unreleased song by Kanye that mentioned bipolar disorders, helped him deal with his own bipolar diagnosis:
‘I found that song (Gossip Flies, 2008) around the same time I was diagnosed, and it became somewhat of a life anthem. It was audio therapy. It made me feel like everything was going to be okay when I was down, and like I could take over the world when I was up. It made being bipolar seem not so bad, and made Kanye West a role model because he was proof of what someone with bipolar could accomplish’.
At the same time, other people with a bipolar diagnosis were way more critical, arguing that Kanye gave a too one-sided, positive, view of the disorder that was creating risks for others with the same disorder. One person on Twitter, unclear if diagnosed or not, noted that ‘Kanye’s platform glorifying bipolar disorder as a “superpower” and potentially discouraging folks from seeking treatment and help is not good’. Another Twitter user argued that ‘bipolar disorder isn’t the quirky personality trait of a genius. If you’re suffering from symptoms of bipolar disorder (mania/depression), seek help’. Another interesting account comes from Kiana Fitzgerald, diagnosed with bipolar as well, who explains in her blog titled ‘I’m bipolar and finally done with Kanye West’, that ‘the day after Kanye dropped Ye, I woke up knowing I would have to go into work and explain how I felt about having the same diagnosis as the most controversial figure in contemporary pop culture’.
Similarly, in a podcast of Psych Central, a social network for people with mental illnesses, several people who were diagnosed with bipolar disorder were very critical on Kanye suggestion that ‘taking medicines would reduce his creativity’. ‘Gabe’ for instance noted that for Kanye, as a ‘multi-millionaire platinum-selling rapper, maybe this is the best decision. But the majority of the people hearing his message are not famous multi-platinum selling artists’. Noting that since bipolar disorders have a ‘15% death rate by suicide’, he further argues that ‘not getting the correct treatment you are raising your odds of dying by suicide’. On a personal account, ‘Michelle’, noted that she recognized Kanye’s fear of becoming less creative through taking medicine:
‘It was a huge reason about why I didn’t want to take meds when I was younger when I was around 18 or 19 starting meds in college. I would say that I’m taking these meds and I was an art major and it was ruining my artwork and I couldn’t do my artwork anymore because of the meds or I couldn’t play lacrosse good anymore because of the meds.’
What these comments show is that both the people speaking out positively as negatively, focus on Kanye West’s status as one of the most prominent celebrities and his ability to introduce new perspectives and shape the public debate on mental disorders.
Historically, the role of celebrities in the shaping of the debate about mental health is something quite new. Whereas it was first mostly scientific experts and policymakers determining the public conceptions of mental health and disorders, from the 1980s these have been increasingly challenged by advocacy organizations calling for self-representation. The scientific experience was set against personal experience. Now in the digital 21st century where celebrities and so-called ‘influencers’ are increasingly shaping the public sphere, their accounts of personal experience with mental health problems are perhaps increasingly able to become seen as ‘representative’ of the personal experience of a whole ‘group’ of diagnosed individuals with all their specific problems. As Kiana Fitzgerald’s feared, it is likely that when she tells people about her bipolar disorder one of the first things they think about is Kanye West.
The influence of celebrities on the public debate on mental health is also increasingly highlighted by researchers. As Allister Nelson notes in a study in Frontier in Health Communication, Kanye West ‘making public his bipolar disorder diagnosis set off a media maelstrom’, and drew attention to, and thereby largely shaped, the World Mental Health Day of 2018. Nelson’s research on the impact of the personal accounts of almost 160 celebrities who posted on that year’s World Mental Health Day shows that ‘opinion leaders diagnosed with bipolar disorder are effectively shifting the dialogue surrounding mental health to one of stigma reduction and acceptance’.