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Kanye West’s actions over the past month have attracted attention, concern, and headlines.
West has openly discussed his bipolar disorder in the past, as well as his reluctance to seek professional treatment like medication.
His wife Kim Kardashian West issued a statement asking for “compassion and empathy” from the media and public.
Mental health and media experts told Insider that discussions about the substance of West’s tweets, actions, and presidential aspirations need to include context about his mental health.
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Throughout July, Kanye West has inspired headlines and captivated online audiences with a series of unexpected and controversial actions. The rapper began the month by announcing his 2020 presidential candidacy and weeks later, issued a series of since-deleted comments about his family, his wife Kim Kardashian West, and his mental well-being on Twitter.
At his first political rally in South Carolina, West made anti-abortion statements, speaking publicly about his and Kardashian West’s decision to continue the pregnancy of their child North West. He said as president, he would offer $1 million dollars to expecting parents to dissuade abortions.
Then, on Twitter, West implied that Kardashian West and her mother Kris Jenner were attempting to involuntarily detain him for 72-hour psychiatric hospitalization via a 51/50 order. West, who has been outspoken about his bipolar disorder, was reportedly hospitalized in 2016 after a concert.
West has deleted most of his tweets from the past week, including the ones about his family. Kardashian West issued a statement on July 22 asking that the media and public “give us the compassion and empathy that is needed so that we can get through this.”
“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,” Kardashian West wrote. Her publicist declined to comment further to Insider.
Kanye West has spoken about having bipolar disorder before
Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that causes extreme mood changes between emotional highs (manias) and lows (depression). Symptoms of bipolar disorder vary from person to person, but manias are often characterized by impulsiveness, recklessness, a loss of control, and symptoms of psychosis, which can include delusions.
West has previously been candid about his bipolar disorder, including in an interview with David Letterman that debuted on Netflix in May 2019.
“I feel a heightened connection with the universe when I’m ramping up,” West told Letterman on “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.”
“It is a health issue. This is like a sprained brain, like having a sprained ankle,” West said on the show. “And if someone has a sprained ankle, you’re not gonna push on him more. With us, once our brain gets to the point of spraining, people do everything to make it worse.”
West has said he used “alternative” methods to manage bipolar disorder, and while he believes medication may work for others, he said that he prefers not to take it. The artist has also delved into the subject of his mental health in his music, referring to his bipolar disorder as his “superpower” on his 2018 track “Yikes.”
Dr. Sally Satel, a psychiatrist who lectures at Yale University, wrote for USA Today that Kanye’s actions at his campaign stop were irrational and should be viewed in the context of his bipolar disorder.
“[He’s] doing something potentially momentous, trying to run for president, which ironically is arguably a symptom of bipolar disorder,” Satel told Insider. “Grandiosity is a cardinal symptom — you think you can do anything. There’s a strange irony to the whole thing, what makes it a story is actually a manifestation of the mental illness.”
Around two-thirds of bipolar patients may experience delusions of grandeur, according to Medical News Today. However, Kardashian West pointed out in her statement that West’s bipolar diagnosis does not invalidate his goals.
“Living with bi-polar disorder does not diminish or invalidate his dreams and his creative ideas, no matter how big or unobtainable they may feel to some,” Kardashian West wrote. “That is part of his genius and as we have all witnessed, many of his big dreams have come true.”
Many people, including members of the media, have taken West’s statements and aspirations at face value
On July 4, West announced on Twitter that he planned to run for president in 2020. The tweet, while endorsed by Kardashian West and Elon Musk, was deemed a stunt by many of West’s critics. By the time West announced his presidential intentions, it was already too late for him to appear on the ballot in several states.
West also has no campaign apparatus and his late filing status with the Federal Elections Committee makes it doubtful that he will be able to legitimately run for president.
The fact that West may not be a viable candidate for the presidency didn’t stop media coverage around his announcement. Forbes ran an interview with West on July 8 that examined some of his policy proposals and more outlandish political beliefs, including baseless conspiracy theories about vaccines. It did not mention his bipolar disorder.
In covering West’s emotional South Carolina campaign stop and his tweets that appeared to compare his family’s quest for mental health treatment to “white supremacy” and the movie “Get Out,” many publications wrote about West’s statements at face value.
Media experts like Elizabeth Hendrickson, a former entertainment editor for magazines like Glamour and current journalism professor at Ohio University, told Insider that providing context, including West’s bipolar disorder, is “key” to covering him.
She added that while it’s hard not to pay attention to drama unfolding around a public figure, the media has a responsibility to add context.
“A principle of ethical journalism is to seek truth and report it, but a subsidiary of that is to provide that context,” Hendrickson said. “Don’t misrepresent or oversimplify in order to promote your story.”
Experts say including the context of West’s bipolar disorder is necessary to reporting on and understanding his behavior
Jeannette H. Porter, a University of Missouri communications professor and former journalist whose research pertains to communications about African American mental health and mental illness, said she understood the lure of covering West.
“First of all, he says he aspires to lead the country, right?” Porter said. “He wants to be president. And for people like that, the press, we have to give them the highest level of scrutiny, because it’s the most important job we have.”
Still, she added, reporters and the public can’t know if the things he says are accurate.
“I personally would have hoped that the coverage around his statements would have been a bit better wrapped in context such as ‘It’s well-known that Mr. West is struggling with mental health issues,’ as opposed to leading with ‘Kanye says he’s running for president,'” Porter told Insider.
West’s recent behavior provided an opportunity to create a positive discussion on mental health, Porter said, especially for African Americans who she says face increased stigmas around mental health. But it hasn’t, Porter said.
The way the public reacts to and news outlets report on public figures’ illnesses, like cancer, differs from their treatment of mental health issues like eating disorders and drug addiction, Hendrickson said. Because of the privileges celebrities like West have, the public and media coverage tend to treat their mental health conditions as them “losing control.” As a result, she says their actions are often covered like spectacles and can lead to moral judgment rather than eliciting an empathetic reaction, as an illness like cancer would.
All three experts Insider spoke to agreed that framing West’s behavior as a mental health concern rather than a spectacle would benefit public discourse and celebrity coverage.
“To a certain degree it’s a structural problem, and it’s bound by this 24-hour news cycle,” Hendrickson said. “But maybe it would have served the greater good and even their audience by pushing back when it would be published to give the mental health angle a little more thought.”
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