In 2005, on live TV, Kanye West shared one of his first outspoken statements, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”. The rapper has since released his songs with controversy. From his pantomime villain act (interrupting Taylor Swift’s award speech), to his comedic stage show (storming out of an award ceremony after not winning). Whatever you think of West, it seems undeniable to not have found some of his past remarks entertaining. But today, Kanye’s attention surrounds his bipolar – and he no longer sounds funny. The reaction to his latest tweets proves the ongoing mental health stigma.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, there are three types of bipolar disorders and each type involves changing “mood, energy, and activity levels.” People with bipolar disorder experience high and low “episodes”, which as the Institute state, can involve oppositions: struggling to do basic tasks – feeling able to do lots of tasks, performing excessive activities – not having interest for nearly any activity.
Bipolar UK describes the mental condition as “severe”. They characterise it by “significant mood swings” which include “manic highs and depressive lows.” Earlier this week, Kanye published worrying tweets in quick recession. These tweets include: Claims his wife Kim was trying to lock him up with a doctor, accusations of Kim’s family showing “White supremacy”, fears over his daughter North posing for Playboy, and, revealing a new album named after his mother. This came after he attended a Presidential rally and admitted he and Kim had considered aborting North.
Some reactions to Kanye’s tweets felt upsetting. From assuming Kanye’s fine and simply needs to release his new album, to blaming the Kardashian’s for his bipolar episode, and using sarcasm and mockery to laugh at his outbursts. I am positive, some of the people joking about his mental health also retweet mental health awareness posts.
The mental health stigma
Website Magellan Health Insights describes the difference between mental health (our “emotional and psychological state”) to mental illness (a disorder affecting “behaviour” and “mood”). The most common disorders include: Depression, anorexia, anxiety and bipolar.
In recent times, you’d be forgiven for thinking society’s adapting its ideas on understanding and accepting mental health. The Royal Family put together the mental health campaign Heads Together, social media features many captions on people’s emotional state, and nearly every celebrity (it seems) has publicised their experience with some form of anxiety and/or depression (the two most talked about disorders).
But how many of us discuss the less than perfect side to mental health? Away from the bubble baths, exercise, reading and gratitude diaries, what about the hopelessness, the lying-in bed. The weeks spent in haze – managing day-to-day tasks while feeling empty and lost. What about the moments where you’ve done your self-care routine, and still feel rubbish? Or when you’re not feeling able to work out, and go outside.
Discomfort on the topic
I’m not suggesting we ban self-love captions and stop addressing how exercise and journaling improves our well-being. Sharing our stories adds to the conversation and helps people open up and recognise their feelings. And I’m aware: we can’t all relate to the description mentioned above. Even so, if we want to improve the overall mental health stigma, we should get comfortable with the uncomfortable. We should understand the less perfect behaviours surrounding mental health.
There is countless stigma I’ve personally noticed:
- Believing a person isn’t “strong” when they’re struggling to cope.
- Thinking anti-depressants are bad. Subsequently, advising people to replace with “natural remedies”.
- Assuming a person’s experience with a mental disorder will match someone else’s.
- Judging the seriousness of someone’s mental health by their lifestyle. An idea a “happy”, wealthy, beautiful or successful person can’t be struggling.
- Expecting a person with mental health problems to practice better self-care and learn to appreciate life.
- Not taking mental health seriously – making light comments (e.g., ‘I want to be anorexic’; ‘My favourite show is cancelled, I want to kill myself’).
- Automatically perceiving mental health disorders as negative.
- Avoiding people with severe symptoms – laughing at behaviour (e.g., Britney Spears shaving her head).
- Incorrectly labelling disorders (e.g., celebrities saying they have anxiety because they get nervous before performing).
What Kanye West’s online outburst shows: society doesn’t teach people the full extent of mental health, the best way to react and the symptoms to look out for. We’ve become condition to mild cases – how can we educate on more severe?
The problem partly lies in how we associate people discussing their “undesirable” feelings. I’m someone with wavering self-emotions: Sometimes I feel confident, talented, pretty and driven. Other moments I’m unattractive, out of shape, untalented and stupid. When I’m feeling insecure, I can hibernate, over-analyse, and put myself through days or weeks of self-punishment. It’s as though a dark twin takes over, reminding me I’m worthless. A person could harmlessly say a photo isn’t my best or a blog post isn’t a favourite, and I’ll interpret it as: ALL my photos aren’t good, I’m terrible at writing. I find this difficult to say because I don’t want people assuming, I’m “sad fishing” (purposely trying to gain sympathy), or attempting to receive compliments.
When people don’t know how to react, they typically offer advice. From instantly disputing self-negative talk, to heaping praise. Admittedly, I do this myself. But I don’t believe it’s always the best solution. If you immediately tell someone they shouldn’t think a certain thing – doesn’t that make them feel guilty and wrong; possibly more insecure?
Blog Post: Keeping Thoughts Private to Help Anxiety
The shame in getting help
I don’t consider my symptoms severe. For some, getting help and opening up can feel more difficult. Last year, I interviewed a director of a mental health charity. The director talked through the low funding given to antidepressant drugs, and why mental health campaigns don’t always help. In the UK, there is a shortage of NHS therapists and a large waiting list (possibly 6 weeks) to see one. Antidepressants are the only alternative, and these drugs are shrouded in mixed assumptions. Mental health awareness campaigns often encourage people with mild disorders to seek support – the director explained that the campaigns rarely aid those with severe symptoms. As a result, the most critical may not benefit.
Many people now have the confidence to speak to friends, go to their doctor and reach out to organisations. Individuals are researching holistic and alternative treatments, artistic therapies, self-tips to improve their thoughts. While fantastic, we can’t forget that not everyone has understanding friends and family – social media can feel like a lifeline. And it can also be a place of release. Mental health can be messy, excessive, dark and isolating: what people post online won’t always feel self-loving and inspiring.
We shouldn’t remove compassion; nor replace it with humour when mental health goes out of our comfort zone. Kim Kardashian stated in an Instagram story, “We as a society talk about giving grace to the issue of mental health as a whole, however we should also give it to the individuals who are living with it in times when they need it the most.”
Mental health stigma: Recognising the positive
A lovely article on website The Mighty, lists reasons why writer Ashley Williams is grateful for her mental illness. One reason explains how she is able to better appreciate good moments. For people living with mental illness, there is little said on the upside. Kanye West, with his disorder, has proven you can still achieve dreams and impact a chosen industry. I haven’t always sung his praises and have probably complained about his actions somewhere on my blog. However, Kanye West’s current tweets remind us to judge less, understand more, and educate on the wide spectrum of mental health.
In summary, What can help change mental health stigma? Suggested next read: The Anxiety Solution: Book Review