A Therapist Speaks: What the Ye (Kanye West) Drama Can Teach Us About Mental Health Stigma

Even self-proclaimed mental health advocates have resorted to calling Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) ‘crazy,’ writes the psychiatrist Allison Young, MD. Here’s why that’s harmful.

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Kanye West with Sunglasses

In March 2022, Ye (Kanye West) was suspended from Instagram for 24 hours after he violated Instagram's?rules related to hate speech and bullying.

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The Grammy-winning rapper Ye (known as Kanye West before he legally changed his name) has caused quite a social media frenzy over the past several months.

The reason? The root of the drama is that the reality TV star Kim Kardashian, Ye’s now ex-wife, went public with her new relationship with the?Saturday Night Live comedian Pete Davidson in late 2021. Since then, Ye has had several public outbursts, mostly on social media, related to Kardashian and Davidson’s budding romance.

Many people have watched this drama unfold with bated breath as if it were the newest reality TV show. Others have been critical of Ye, and rejoiced when Ye’s Instagram account was briefly suspended because of an outburst the company's moderators deemed to be bullying and harassment.

In addition, although he was nominated for five awards, Ye was a no-show at the 64th annual Grammy Awards after he was told he could no longer perform, according to?Variety. And just nine days before the 2022 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California was scheduled to start, he pulled out of the third night's headlining spot for both of the festival's weekends,?TMZ?reported.

As a psychiatrist, I was surprised by how few people showed compassion for Ye, despite his open struggle with bipolar disorder.

I have not evaluated Ye and cannot comment on anything related to his mental health other than what he and his loved ones have publicly shared. And having not evaluated Ye personally, I cannot say for sure if his recent outbursts are indeed related to his bipolar disorder. However, considering that Ye and his loved ones have said that prior public outbursts he's had were related to his bipolar disorder, it’s certainly possible that the more recent ones are, too.

First, What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is mental health condition in which people experience intense mood episodes lasting days to weeks at a time. The episodes are either manic (abnormally happy or irritable), hypomanic (a less severe version of a manic episode), or depressive (very low mood and hopelessness).

An estimated 2.8 percent of the U.S. population has bipolar disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Of these cases, 83 percent are severe.

When having a manic episode, a person can be prone to racing thoughts, restlessness, irritability, grandiosity (exaggerated sense of self-importance), and reckless behavior — and they feel little control over these symptoms. This behavior is a noticeable change from the person’s usual behavior, and they may feel embarrassed or remorseful about their behavior once the manic episode is over.

Despite Ye’s openness about having this serious mental health condition, I’ve seen many people on social media — including self-proclaimed mental health advocates — using words like “crazy” to describe him and mocking his behavior. This confirmed something I’ve known for a long time from speaking with my clients: While society is making some effort to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, it still has a long way to go, especially for conditions like bipolar disorder.

Research Shows Bipolar Disorder Is Stigmatized More Than Other Mental Illnesses. Why?

Depression and bipolar disorder are both mood disorders, but research shows that bipolar disorder is associated with more stigma — meaning negative attitudes toward a person based on a notable characteristic, such as mental illness — than other mood disorders like depression or anxiety disorders. In fact, according to one review published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, the stigma associated with bipolar disorder is along the same lines as the stigma tied to severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia.

Unfortunately, according to a systematic review also published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, less research has looked at bipolar-related stigma than stigma associated with other mental illnesses, including both depression and schizophrenia. This means more research is needed to fully understand and address stigma related to bipolar disorder.

In my experience working with people diagnosed with a variety of mental health conditions and their loved ones, a couple of things have stood out to me.

For starters, although irritability can be a symptom of depression, bipolar disorder is more frequently associated with both irritability and reckless behavior, which can be challenging for family and friends to cope with. A person’s behavior when experiencing a manic episode can strain relationships. Unfortunately, the depiction of bipolar disorder in the media can increase fears of manic behavior among friends and family members of those with this condition. The effect is that a person with bipolar disorder can become isolated from the people they rely on most for care and compassion.

Additionally, even though a person without a mental health condition may not know exactly what a depressive episode or anxiety disorder feels like, they have likely felt at least some of the symptoms of those conditions, such as feeling down or hopeless or worrying about something so much it affects the way they feel physically. On the other hand, bipolar disorder is a more unique experience, and most people cannot imagine what it’s like to feel like they can’t control their energy, thoughts, and behaviors.

As a result, it may be easier for people to relate to or empathize with those with depression or anxiety than those with bipolar disorder. And instead of viewing the behavior of someone with bipolar disorder with care and compassion, a person may look on with judgment.

As we saw with Ye’s outbursts on social media, more people seemed to respond with criticism than with concern. But the next step in destigmatizing mental illness is to offer grace even when we don’t relate to the experiences of someone with a mental illness.

In other words, you don’t need to totally understand something to be understanding.

Why It’s Not as Simple as ‘Calling Out’ Harassment

Another concerning trend I’ve noticed is that many people have attempted to justify their mockery and criticism of Ye because they feel they’re calling out abusive behavior toward Kardashian and any celebrity who spoke out in support of her and her new relationship.

In fact, the criticism Ye is getting now is reminiscent of the backlash he received after one of his first memorable public outbursts — when he stormed the stage during singer Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech after she won an MTV Video Music Award (VMA) in 2009. At the time, viewers were understandably upset about what happened. But Ye later revealed in a podcast interview that, in his experience at the time, he felt that God specifically called to him to go onstage — a sign that he may have been having a manic episode.

Let’s be clear: Ye’s behavior in these instances was not okay. But it’s important to understand that when someone with bipolar disorder is experiencing a manic episode, as Ye presumably may have been, attacking them for their behavior is not helpful. And these recent incidents have revealed how difficult it can be to live with bipolar disorder and to have a relationship with someone who has bipolar disorder.

When someone is having a severe manic episode, they cannot evaluate their own behavior in the same way they can when the episode is over. What they need most in that moment is help with their illness, not criticism from strangers.

Another reason this is important to realize is the excitement I’ve seen people expressing about “what he will post next” on social media. Finding pleasure in another's pain is obviously unkind, but it’s even worse to do so in response to what are potentially symptoms of a serious mental illness.

Ways We Can Better Support People With Mental Illnesses

So how can we recommit to destigmatizing all mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder? Here are some actions you can take starting today.

1.?Extend Kindness to People With Mental Illness

Memes and other posts pop up all over social media advocating “kindness, because you never know what someone is going through.” But the response to the Ye drama has made it clear that most people apply this rule only to people showing signs of depression or anxiety, likely because depression and anxiety are much more common than bipolar disorder, and the symptoms of these conditions are viewed more favorably and with less fear than those of bipolar disorder. We need to extend this same kindness to other mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, even if they are less common and more difficult to understand.

2.?Realize That Your Words Matter

Although bipolar disorder is less common than depression, consider that someone in your community likely has or knows someone affected by this condition before you comment about a public figure like Ye struggling with the disorder. Your words have the power to be supportive or destructive to the members of that community.

3. Don’t Make Assumptions About Someone Based on Their Diagnosis

Keep in mind that all mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, have a range of potential symptoms and severities. In other words, the way one person experiences mental illness may be different from the way someone else with a similar diagnosis experiences it. Don’t assume that because one person experiences their disorder one way — such as having a history of outbursts — that this will be the case for everyone with the disorder.

4. Learn to Separate the Person From Their Behavior

Learning to view someone’s behavior during a manic episode separately from their true personality can be tricky. This can be challenging even for loved ones of a person with bipolar disorder, let alone for people who don’t personally know anyone with this condition.

If someone with a known mental health condition is suddenly behaving in a way that’s raising eyebrows, consider that the behavior may be the result of their condition. Although their behavior may seem bold, offensive, or inappropriate, there is a person underneath that behavior who’s likely suffering.

Important: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not Everyday Health.