Kanye West is known for two things: his music and speaking his mind. The latter has recently made the rounds in gossip outlets with his now-deleted tweets about divorcing his wife, how the film Get Out was about him, and a slew of rants that left more questions than answers.
As Minority Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close, it is important to talk about Kanye West. First, there are people with mental illness in the Black community. And second, the Black people with mental illness who we know and love are watching how we engage with the trending topics of the day. They’re assessing if we are, as we might claim to be, co-conspirators in the fight against ableism and safe havens against the stigma that permeates the lives of people living with mental illness. Kanye is no stranger to controversy, but the ways the public discusses his controversies involve far too much online and offline armchair diagnosing.
Since Kanye revealed he has bipolar disorder two years ago, many people—both helping professionals and laypeople—have speculated about his well-being, particularly when the media sensationalizes his actions. This sensationalizing opens the door to mock Kanye and stir up mental health stigma, which fails to create an atmosphere of empathy.
Empathy does not mean excusing the misogynoir dripping from the statements Kanye made about Harriet Tubman, for example. It does mean eschewing readily available ableist slurs or ways of thinking about a person’s mental health.
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Social workers are bound by the National Association of Social Workers’ code of ethics. One of its core values—“respect for the dignity and worth of all people”—doesn’t only extend to one’s clients; it’s something we’re meant to apply to our everyday encounters. Respecting a person’s dignity and worth means not reducing them to their actual or speculated diagnosis, but that’s exactly what happened in the wake of Kanye’s behavior on Twitter earlier this month. As helping professionals, we are discouraged from diagnosing a person that we do not know. As the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has said:
We at the APA call for an end to psychiatrists providing professional opinions in the media about public figures whom they have not examined, whether it be on cable news appearances, books, or in social media. Armchair psychiatry or the use of psychiatry as a political tool is the misuse of psychiatry and is unacceptable and unethical.
Helping professionals are frequently reminded of this principle. But the average person who freely uses armchair diagnosis against a public figure like Kanye—without considering that the impact of their actions extend beyond the public figure they are targeting—needs to be reminded that speculating about someone’s mental health is ethically bankrupt. It is easy to dismiss and devalue a polarizing figure like Kanye. We don’t consider his humanity because he comes across as annoying and self-serving, clueless about the way society and politics works, and privileged. So what does it matter if the knee-jerk response is to place blame on him using the lowest hanging fruit—the stigma that stems from speculation about his mental health?
But the true harm of gossip and speculation about a public figure of this visibility is the way it seeps into the fabric of how we view the people around us with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses.
So who is actually harmed in social media commentary about mental illness and Kanye? “I think, for me, it always lands on who is able to hear you,” said Bassey Ikpi, a mental health advocate and the author of I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying. “Kanye cannot hear you—not only is he not able to due to proximity, but the space he is [in] emotionally/mentally. But the people who can hear you are affected by the attitude and the language.”
“I want people to be more mindful of that in the same way we are mindful on how we discuss other issues. Mindful because of who our words can inadvertently hurt,” Ikpi told me.
Accountability, responsibility, factual information, and empathy are not simply luxuries in mental health discourse. These elements must be considered standard so that we do not find ourselves perpetuating stigma through a simple keystroke or status update. Everyone, and particularly young people, are watching each time Kanye and his mental illness trends. What does that mean for how people with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses view themselves when we are careless with our words?
I asked Ikpi, who writes often about living with bipolar II, how her perspective on her mental illness has changed since she was younger. “What has saved my life countless times is the support I have from friends and family. Knowing that someone cares about me when I’m unable to care for or about myself,” she said. “Younger Bassey would have been reluctant to trust that based on the conversation now. I would have been more engulfed in shame and would be determined not to be ‘like the people they talk about.’”
“That would mean not getting treatment, that would mean not taking my medication, that would mean not doing anything that would be an admission. That’s a very real thing that happened to me when I was young.” Ikpi continued. “I didn’t want to be ‘like them.’ Bassey today is much more secure and settled and rooted in how my mental health is important to me. I have a confidence and commitment to my wellness that isn’t predicated on how I’m seen. That’s a privilege.”
But developing that kind of confidence, in the face of social media’s constant ableist bombardment, shouldn’t be a privilege. Everyone should be able to come into their own when it comes to understanding their bodies, minds, and identities without dealing with shame or ridicule, even shame or ridicule that’s being heaped on someone else. Whether it’s Kanye, your best friend, or even yourself, we all have an obligation not to cut anyone down by weaponizing their mental illness against them to discredit their character or humanity. Armchair diagnosis is an unfounded and unethical practice that needs to be unlearned to ameliorate its harmful effects on our community and broader society.