Mental illness is a frightfully deceptive and cunning adversary. It often strikes at the most inopportune moments in a person’s life and is adept at concealing itself from its prey. It is a master of the art of disguise, sometimes expressing itself in ways that are misinterpreted as innocuous behavioral quirks or the symptoms of an idiosyncratic personality. And once its presence has been detected, it can’t be dealt with like an infestation of unwelcome insects. You can’t just kill it with a few squirts of poison or lure it out with a cleverly designed trap. It is by no means invincible, but it most certainly is immortal—at least until we find a way to cure it for good. In the meantime, it’s up to those of us who suffer from mental illness to deal with it as best we can, and for the rest of the world to at least respect that struggle as much as it respects the struggle of any person afflicted with an incurable, debilitating condition.
Unfortunately, that isn’t how some people are responding to the news that Kanye West’s recent behavior might be a consequence of his ongoing battle with bipolar disorder. The condition is known to produce manic episodes that drastically alter a person’s mood and can cause them to “develop thinking that is out of step with reality – psychotic symptoms – such as false beliefs (delusions) or false perceptions (hallucinations),” according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Some folks have put their lack of empathy on full display, arguing that Kanye is undeserving of any patience or compassion until he takes full responsibility for his illness. This position assumes that Kanye is both fully aware of the severity of his condition and that he isn’t already trying to find a solution to his problem that works well for him. But we have no idea whether either of those assumptions is correct, let alone both. It is possible that Kanye knows he isn’t acting rationally, but there is no way for us, the general public, to confirm that that’s the case. And while it is possible that he has stopped taking his medication, it is also possible that his medication, whatever it may be, is causing nasty side effects and reducing his quality of life.
On social media, there are widespread sentiments that Kim Kardashian is somehow to blame for all this, which strikes me as an unfair accusation based on an incomplete picture of her relationship with Kanye. Bipolar disorder is not an infectious disease; it is an illness likely caused by some combination of genetic and biological factors. Kim bears no responsibility for the fact that Kanye has been cursed with this problem. Is it possible that she has enabled his behavior to some extent, or maybe even exploited it? Sure, but it would be totally unreasonable to draw that conclusion without knowing more details about how she has tried to help her husband manage his condition. And to be frank, we aren’t entitled to those details, nor should we be.
And then there are the armchair psychiatrists who are convinced they know what Kanye’s real problem is despite their unfamiliarity with the specifics of his situation. Some of these self-appointed experts have suggested that Kanye’s behavior has nothing to do with his bipolar disorder at all, and that there must be some other underlying cause that has yet to be identified. Others have argued that he’s just a self-centered narcissist who has used his disorder as a shield against well-earned criticism. But again, we simply don’t have enough information to know whether there is any validity to these theories.
What we do know, though, is that there are lot of mentally ill people listening in on the conversations about Kanye, and that many of them are undoubtedly feeling the impact of the irresponsible rhetoric that these conversations too often produce. The derisive speculations regarding Kanye’s behavior—that he’s “crazy” and “unhinged,” that he needs to be locked up in an institution, and that he’s just using his illness as an excuse to act out—serve to reinforce the stigmas that discourage mentally ill people from learning how to love themselves and seeking the help they need to live happy, productive lives. We owe it to those individuals to consider how the language we use contributes to the undeserved feelings of shame, alienation, and self-loathing that they frequently experience.
We owe that same thing to Kanye West, too. Yes, he’s famous. Yes, he’s rich. And, yes, he’s very, very privileged. But wealth, fame, and privilege do not render anyone invincible to the pain and misery that mental illness begets. At the end of the day, Kanye West is still just a person, a person burdened with a disease that can at times feel insurmountable and induce bizarre, unpredictable behavior. If you were in his shoes, having lived the same exact life he’s lived and dealt with the same exact set of circumstances he’s been dealt, there’s a very good chance that you, too, would find yourself in the same exact situation in which he now finds himself. Keep that in mind before you judge him too harshly for his imperfect handling of a burden that has ruined far more lives than you will ever know.