I never thought that I’d be likening myself to Kanye West. The renowned rapper is exuberant and egotistical and unhinged for the most part. At least, that’s what we see in the media, but that’s not truly who he is – and it’s not me, either.
Like West, I suffer from bipolar disorder. I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder at the beginning of this year, at 20 years old. Unsurprisingly, it’s still something I’m learning to handle, but it was a huge weight off of my shoulders, offering an explanation for the reckless highs and depressive lows I’d been experiencing for several years. It also allowed me to begin to understand myself a little better.
In July, West was pulled into a media circus following an announcement that he would be campaigning to become the President of the United States. But it wasn’t this fact that made headlines – it was his outburst at a presidential rally in South Carolina that pointed to signs of ill mental health.
Sporting a bulletproof vest and with “2020″ shaved into the side of his hair, West gave a hysterical speech. “I almost killed my daughter,” he cried, describing how he and then-girlfriend Kim Kardashian discussed abortion when she was pregnant with their first born, North. The rally was followed by a thread of erratic tweets that have since been deleted, where West likened his life to the horror film Get Out.
West was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2016 and hasn’t been shy in sharing his condition, one he’s previously described as a “superpower”.
What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder involves episodes of mania, characterised by a highly elated mood, boundless energy and hyposomnia, and can be accompanied by delusions and mental states where the person may feel separated from reality. The Black Dog Institute reports one in 50 adults experience bipolar disorder each year in Australia.
Now, this is the part where I confess to seeing elements of my experience in Kanye’s behaviour on the campaign trail. As somebody with self-destructive tendencies, it’s easy to pinpoint when somebody else is actively dismantling their life. But it wasn’t Kanye who made me stop and evaluate my mental heath journey – it was his wife, Kim. In her, I recognised my parents. I saw my younger brother and my boyfriend. My eyes were opened to every single person who has ever loved, or attempted to love, someone like me.
Kardashian West took to Instagram to address her husband’s behaviour at the rally in South Carolina, sharing eloquent insight into the struggles of living and loving with bipolar.
“As many of you know, Kanye has bi-polar disorder. Anyone who has this or has a loved one in their life who does, knows how incredibly complicated and painful it is to understand,” she wrote.
Everyone in our inner circles continues to learn, too. It is abundantly complicated and painful to process the inner workings of the mind of someone with a mental illness, both for the person who is living through it, and for those who are by their side.
How does media-perpetuated stigma taint the conversation surrounding mental health?
Over the past decade, the conversation surrounding mental illness has become much more public and widespread. It can be powerful when people in the public arena are open about their private struggles, but I feel that our compassion as a society only stretches so far. I’ve watched keenly as West experienced back-to-back manic episodes and seen how the public dismisses his behaviour as a publicity stunt. It just goes to show that while we’ve come far in accepting more palatable illnesses such as depression and anxiety, the advocacy doesn’t yet extend to include those with bipolar disorder.
Dare I say we are less willing to confront the messier, less coherent symptoms of mental illness, instead reducing them to a result of somebody going “crazy” or having a mental breakdow?
Lysn psychologist Noosha Anzab says the media is an active contributor to the stigma surrounding complex mental illnesses, saying their language “paint[s] the illnesses as problematic and almost as though the person has caught a case of the crazies”.
“When celebrities are thrown into the mix, the somewhat public episode can become really sensationalised and paraded around as entertainment,” she said, in reference to the many memes that stemmed from West’s outburst, and more famously, from singer Britney Spears’ troubling time in 2007.
There’s more to bipolar disorder than what you see in the media
The online response to West’s outburst doesn’t take into account the complexity of his disorder. Whether you’re making fun of his behaviour, condemning it or plainly asking why he doesn’t seek help, you’re making an assumption: that this person is fully in control of their actions.
It’s not as simple as that. It’s difficult, particularly with somebody like Kanye West, to know where his narcissism stops and his mania begins. When someone is in the midst of a manic episode, they don’t tend to realise it. I know in myself there have been times when I’ve been in the throes of a manic period and acted destructively, yet my illness meant I was unable to recognise that that my behaviour wasn’t acceptable, or that I wasn’t in a healthy headspace.
Despite now being medicated, I am fighting against my own instincts every single day.
I take my hat off to Kanye West – he’s been brave enough to tell the world about his diagnosis. My bipolar diagnosis has been a secret to 99 per cent of the people in my life, and I deliberated for a long time whether this is something I was willing to write about, let alone something I was willing to publish. I even considered leaving it anonymous. Not because I’m ashamed of my disorder, after all it’s part of what makes me who I am, but out of fear that society’s ill-considered opinions of people with bipolar disorder – that we’re violent, uninhibited and volatile – will come back to bite me.
These kinds of responses can’t be subdued given West’s fame, but what do his circumstances depict to an everyday person, to someone like me, who turns to social media to analyse their own mental illness?
Anzab said that it’s very common for those who have a predominant mental health problem to be “negatively impacted” by the media’s representation of their illness.
“Everyday people are left to feel ashamed … and unworthy when all forms of media depict mental illness as dangerous, faulty and problematic,” she said.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve said things that have caused those around me pain, because it’s very much possible to act out during an episode in a way that doesn’t align with the person you are at heart.
It’s this fact that sticks in my mind, and further rings true in Kardashian West’s statement: “Those who are close with Kanye know his heart and understand his words sometimes do not align with his intentions.”
It’s much better to show compassion towards somebody who is unwell than demonising their actions when they are manic.
So how can we react to public episodes such as West’s in a way that is less damaging?
Instead of firing off a snarky, likes-inducing tweet, start with educating yourself about bipolar, the symptoms of the disorder, and what it means to live with them. It’s important to understand that each person’s experience with bipolar disorder is unique and can stem from circumstances and a history that is individual to them.
Bipolar isn’t anyone’s fault, but the physical changes to your brain can sometimes make you feel like it is – one week you feel invincible, running on boundless energy and the next, you’re screaming in a heap on the floor with depressive paranoia.
Kanye West and I aren’t so different after all. We’ll both likely grapple with a wicked bipolar diagnosis for the rest of our lives. We’ll both say and do things we don’t really mean, and we’ll continue to rely on the love and support of those around us.
I just hope that the next time bipolar disorder is discussed in mainstream media, the world’s understanding and compassion is more far-reaching.