Earlier this month, when Kanye West said he was going to go “death con 3” on Jewish people, many people online and in the media were quick to remind others about the artist’s mental health. West, who is legally known as Ye, has bipolar disorder, and has been open about it and his struggles for years.
Wishes online that Ye would get help and comments on social media contextualizing his present comments with his history of both mental illness and intentional provocation have spurred important questions on how to respond to the controversy. How should we talk about Ye? When it comes to hateful rhetoric and behavior, do we consider a person’s mental health? Furthermore, should someone who is mentally ill be held accountable for their words and actions?
Some netizens have tried to answer these questions. In Gizmodo’s own comment section, users have called on Ye to be ignored, to be put in a padded room, or to be excused because mentally ill people don’t know what they’re saying. Other users, while disapproving of his behavior, have said that the artist should get professional help.
Several mental health experts that spoke to Gizmodo stressed that mental illness does not cause antisemitism or racism and should not be used as an excuse for such hateful behavior. Bedford Palmer, Ph.D., a Black psychologist in California and founder of Deeper Than Color, told Gizmodo that in general, people with mental illnesses do far fewer negative things and are far less violent than people who don’t have a mental health disorder.
Speaking about Ye, while stating that he had not seen the artist’s medical records and was not diagnosing his behavior, Palmer stressed that we need to separate the behaviors and the person from the mental illness.
“Having that disorder does not make you a racist, it does not make you antisemitic, it does not make you do harmful things to people,” the psychologist, who is also an associate professor at Saint Mary’s College of California, explained.
Additionally, Palmer stated that the public seems to forget that Ye has always courted controversy and tried to get a rise out of everyone. He’s done that since his first album in 2004, College Dropout, Palmer maintained, and said that a lot of his music is about “poking people.” That’s his brand.
Gizmodo spoke to psychologists, psychiatrists, and advocacy organizations about Ye’s recent antisemitic and racist comments and asked what they believed would be a balance between holding him accountable for his words and having empathy for his bipolar disorder, a serious mental illness. Recently, the business community has already made its stance known on this question, with Vogue, talent agency CAA, Balenciaga, Adidas, and Gap all cutting ties with Ye, among others.
Gizmodo also interviewed legal experts about Ye’s recent decision to buy the social network Parler and concerns that he was being taken advantage of while he was in a vulnerable mental state. Parler did not respond to Gizmodo’s requests for comment on the matter.
What is bipolar disorder?
Given the low levels of mental health literacy in the U.S. and the colloquial use of the term “bipolar,” it can be difficult for the public to have a good understanding of the disorder. Mental health experts that spoke to Gizmodo highlighted that many people seem to think that bipolar disorder is another way to refer to mood swings some may have throughout the day.
But bipolar disorder is a lot more serious, complex, and dangerous to a person’s health than the idiomatic usage may suggest, with periods that can last weeks or months. In general, bipolar disorder is characterized by “two poles” in a mood, or an “up” and a “down,” according to psychiatrist Dr. Amanda Joy Calhoun.
“The ‘down’ is when people are depressed—like sad, hopeless, helpless, not enjoying hobbies like they used to, things like that,” Calhoun, a fourth-year adult and child psychiatry resident at Yale Child Study Center, explained in an email. “The ‘up’ describes what we call a manic episode—a period of time in which the person has a very elevated mood—they might feel like they have superpowers, are the smartest person in the world, and may make reckless decisions they regret like spending thousands of dollars.”
Actions carried out during manic episodes reflect a loss of impulse control, Palmer, the psychologist, added, and can include more dangerous behavior like using substances or having sex. He stressed that, though manic episodes are often characterized by a “high,” the disorder can severely impact patients’ lives.
Treatment for bipolar disorder depends on the context and should always include psychological and, if necessary, drug treatment, psychiatrist Dr. Benjamin Janaway said in an email. Psychological support aids people in dealing with the impacts of the illness and helps them understand where, how, and why it may manifest, he stated. In some cases, a person may need hospital care if they are a risk to themselves or others.
Long-term management of bipolar disorder can include using a mood stabilizing drug like Lithium, Janaway explained. Antipsychotics and antidepressants can also be used if the person with bipolar disorder becomes depressed during their low periods.
“Bipolar is a recognized and severe illness that can have a difficult impact on your life, goals and those around you. It can be treated very well, but to do so it must be recognized,” Janaway said.
How should Kanye West be accountable for his racist and antisemitic behavior?
Almost all of the mental health professionals who spoke to Gizmodo about Ye’s behavior stated that mental illness does not induce racism, antisemitism, or any other type of hatred. They underscored that in general, people who experience bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses can and should be held accountable for their words and actions. Janaway declined to comment on Ye’s behavior, citing that he did not have sufficient evidence or the artist’s consent. He also stated this would not be in Ye’s best interests.
Calhoun, from the Yale Child Study Center, told Gizmodo that although one could argue that a person who has a mental illness “may have less of a filter” and share more of their thoughts than they would otherwise, mental illness should not be used as a scapegoat for hateful words and behavior.
“Mental illness can impair the mind and judgement, but it does not create racism,” Calhoun, who is Black, said. “I see many racist psychiatric patients. They say racist things when they are completely stable. Even in cases like dementia, where people lose their memory, I would argue if their ‘go-to’ is racist remarks, they were racist to begin with.”
Jonathan Stea, a clinical psychologist and an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Calgary, told Gizmodo via email that as a general statement, people with bipolar disorder can be held accountable for their words and actions.
Stea pointed out that in extremely rare cases, a person’s moral judgment may be so impaired due to the severity of a mental disorder that they could be found exempt from criminal responsibility—but that almost never applies to the everyday person who lives with bipolar disorder, he said.
“Antisemitic remarks are made by people with and without mental illness. Mental illness isn’t a cause of antisemitic remarks,” said Stea. He added: “People are much more than the mental disorders they might experience.”
On the advocacy side, leaders voiced similar opinions. When asked by Gizmodo whether Ye’s antisemitic comments should be taken seriously even though he has a mental illness, Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said that although he didn’t want to minimize or stigmatize mental health, it was no excuse for antisemitism.
In recent weeks, Greenblatt and the ADL have condemned Ye’s comments. The ADL also launched a campaign titled #RunAwayFromHate urging Adidas to cut ties with the artist, which it eventually did on Tuesday.
“Those trying to sanitize Kanye’s bigoted behavior by solely ascribing it to mental illness do nothing but further stigmatize the millions of adults who deal with these issues,” Greenblatt said in a statement. “When someone with more social media followers than there are Jews in the world uses his platform to attack an entire group of people based on their religious and ethnic identity, that cannot be dismissed as simply a mental health issue, it is antisemitism.”
American Jewish Committee CEO Ted Deutch also stated that mental illness was no excuse for antisemitism in an Oct. 12 online statement. Deutch said that there was no “explaining away” Ye’s rants on social media.
“Although some have tried, there is no rationale, no explaining away Kanye West’s rants on social media for anything else than what they are: vicious antisemitic statements that pose a clear and present danger to every Jewish person,” the AJC CEO said. “West has acknowledged he suffers from bipolar disorder, but mental illness is no excuse for antisemitism. Let’s hope he gets the help he desperately needs.”
Is Kanye being taken advantage of?
Ye’s racist and antisemitic behavior has not been the only cause of concern lately. His announced acquisition of right-wing social media site Parler has also come under scrutiny. On Oct. 18, tech journalist Kara Swisher said that in her opinion, Parlement Technologies, Parler’s parent company, was taking advantage of someone who was mentally ill. Parlement Technologies’ CEO, George Farmer, is married to far-right commentator Candace Owens, who was one of the few people who praised the artist’s racist “White Lives Matter” T-Shirts.
“They’re absolutely taking advantage of this guy. I don’t think they had many plays and they’re doing this one. But I just feel like this is just a grift. This is a terrible grift on a mentally ill person, so I don’t know what to say,” Swisher said on her Pivot podcast.
Swisher isn’t the only one who has voiced concerns about Ye’s mental health and the potential Parler acquisition. However, mental health experts say it’s hard to conclude whether Ye is being taken advantage of in this situation. Stea, the psychologist from the University of Calgary, said making that determination requires information we don’t have access to.
“It’s hard to know whether that argument has merit because no one other than his care team and perhaps close confidants are really privy to the intricacies of Kanye’s mental health,” Stea explained. “Even people who experience bipolar disorder will be heterogeneous in their symptoms and presentation, which means they won’t always look or act the same.”
Palmer, the psychologist from California, agreed with Stea and said we need more information in order to evaluate that claim. Palmer went on to say that no one knows what medication schedule Ye is on, if he’s on medication at all, or what his real diagnosis is. There is no doctor’s report publicly available.
What we do know, the California psychologist stated, is that Ye is rich—though no longer a billionaire as of Tuesday, according to Forbes—and has made plenty of good financial decisions to leverage his talent and persona. In addition, we know that Parler is a space where radical right wingers say horrible, nasty, and racist things without getting in trouble for it, Palmer pointed out. Based on Ye’s recent statements, it seems like he shares these right-wing beliefs, so it’s not surprising for someone like him to be interested in that company, the psychologist said.
Furthermore, Palmer observed that Ye’s public behavior does not seem to indicate that he can’t take care of himself or that he’s in a state where he needs serious care and hospitalization.
“I’m observing that this person seems to be functioning in the world. And I don’t have any [public] evidence or data, and I don’t think anyone has any [public] evidence or data, to say that he is somehow having diminished capacity. He’s hanging out with people that he likes and making deals with them,” Palmer said. “He’s responsible for that.”
From a legal perspective, Jesse Fried, a law professor at Harvard Law School, told Gizmodo that in theory, Ye or a guardian could make the case that he was mentally impaired when he made the Parler deal and get out of it. The artist likely wouldn’t want to do that, though.
“If Ye or a guardian claims Ye was mentally incapacitated when he entered into a deal, and therefore should not be bound to the deal, Ye could in theory prevail,” Fried said in an email. “But even bringing such a claim would end Ye’s ability to do business; nobody would wish to deal with him after that. So I would not expect Ye to bring such a claim.”
How should we talk about Kanye West so we don’t stigmatize others?
In recent weeks, Ye’s racist and antisemitic behaviors have made waves and sparked heated discussions on what role, if any, his mental health played in his actions. At the end of the day, comments posted on Gizmodo.com and countless others across the internet made by netizens and news organizations alike likely don’t reach Ye, and probably mean nothing to him. They do, however, likely reach one of the 52.9 millions of Americans who live with mental illness, and have the potential to increase stigma and harm people who have nothing to do with Ye.
When asked about the recent discourse around Ye, Stea, the psychologist and professor, said that it can be stigmatizing to say that Ye’s recent actions are a result of a mental health episode.
“It can be tempting for people to write off someone’s poor behavior as the result of mental health concerns, but that temptation is stigmatizing because it creates an illusory correlation between poor behavior and mental health concerns,” he stated. “It’s also just conjecture.”
Janaway, the psychiatrist who declined to comment specifically on Ye, agreed. He reiterated what other mental health professionals maintained, emphasizing that people can hold socially unjust views, even abhorrent ones, without having a mental disorder. If we begin to consider expressions of those horrible viewpoints as indications of illness, the psychiatrist stated, we run the risk of using social acceptance as a marker of illness.
Furthermore, Palmer explains that the person affected when others talk about a celebrity’s mental illness on TV or in a story is usually not the celebrity.
“The person who’s really affected is the person who comes to me who’s having a really bad day now because they had to look at all this stuff in the news talking about what they’re dealing with, but not talking about it correctly,” the California psychologist said.
Calhoun, the psychiatry resident from Yale, stated that Ye’s mental illness and his comments should be spoken about separately, and not as if one causes the other.
“Talking about mental illness and lack of services as well as racism in mental health treatment are both real issues. And also, talking about Kanye’s comments that were anti-Black and anti-Semitic, for example, are another issue,” Calhoun emphasized. “Many people exist who have mental illnesses and are not racist or offensive. I work with many of them.”