Some images of poor mental health from relatively recent films: in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a deeply traumatised teenage boy (Logan Lerman), who was sexually abused and suffered clinical depression, kisses a sparkly Emma Watson and stands up, triumphant and redeemed, in the back of a pick-up truck while David Bowie’s Heroes plays on the soundtrack.
In Silver Linings Playbook, two very attractive and very mentally ill people (Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper) find redemption and love through the power of taking part in a dance competition. (Good news, people with bipolar disorder! No need to take your lithium anymore, you can just embrace the power of the tango.) And finally, most of all, in Girl, Interrupted, there’s Angelina Jolie, barely capable of feeding herself but still able to style her sexily disheveled hair and whack on her smudged eyeliner perfectly. These characters are, the movies all suggest, not crazy like the homeless man who shouts in front of the supermarket. They are simply too sensitive for the cold, tin-eared world.
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Some images of poor mental health from my own experience, when I lived in various psychiatric facilities in the Nineties, where I was being treated for anorexia nervosa: the black woman who walked around shouting racist obscenities all day. The man who came into the TV room, dropped his trousers, and started masturbating (to Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, of all people, so you knew he was really crazy). The woman who pulled out all the hairs in her eyebrows and eyelashes. These people did not look sensitive. They looked ugly and sad.
Which brings me to Kanye West, now known as Ye, and probably the most famous mentally ill person in the world right today. West’s mental state has been in freefall for years and he has been talking about his bipolar disorder for a while. His manic behaviour goes off and on, and right now, it is very much on.
This latest episode started with his fashion show in Paris for his label Yeezy, for which he and his models wore t-shirts emblazoned with the logo White Lives Matter. “This is a God thing,” he informed the audience. When Vogue’s global fashion editor, Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, criticised the show, West mocked her shoes on social media. Things spiralled from there, with — and I’m condensing here, for all of our sakes — West posting messages in which he accused Puff Daddy/Puff Diddy/Diddy of being controlled by Jewish people, and then he accused his ex-wife Kim Kardashian of hiding his kids from him. He followed these rants by tweeting: “when I wake up I’m going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE.” Because Jews, he wrote, “black ball anyone who opposes your agenda”.
The condemnation has been universal. West’s attacks on Karefa-Johnson prompted the model Gigi Hadid to write on his Instagram “You wish u had a percentage of her intellect” and called him “a bully and a joke”. Many are talking about him being “cancelled”, whatever that even means when we’re talking about one of the most famous artists in the world. West’s former friend John Legend and — somewhat randomly — Jamie Lee Curtis have reprimanded West for his antisemitic comments. West, it is generally agreed, needs to be held accountable for his actions.
There has been an enormous amount of talk about mental health over the past two decades. Back when I was in hospital, having mental health issues was embarrassing, as though you were some kind of Jason Vorhees figure from the Friday the 13th movies, or locked in a cell with a muzzle over your face like Hannibal Lecter. Partly thanks to movies like the ones listed above, and partly thanks to better education, things have swung very much the other way.
Now, people talk openly about taking “mental health days” and being “triggered” by unpleasant comments or images, demanding that people make allowances for them and their fragile mind. Twentysomethings talk anxiously about “burn out” and it’s the rare professional athlete who at this point hasn’t talked about his mental health issues — usually anxiety, addiction or depression. Mental illness has become a kind of identity for some people, and it’s a fine line these days between being open about your problems and fetishising them. To discuss your mental health proves you are in touch with your feelings. That you are revealing your true glowing self, beneath the layers society forces on you. That you are self-aware. Sensitive. And special.
Whatever anyone else wants to say about West, no one can accuse him of not being self-aware about his problems. He raps about “my bipolar shit” and he let himself be filmed having a full manic episode in the three-part documentary Jeen-Yuhs, directed by West’s friend and occasional collaborator, Coodie. I cannot recommend this documentary highly enough, whether you’re a West fan or not, because I’ve never before seen a movie that so clearly charts what a descent into a full-blown mental health crisis looks like.
In the first part, we see West as a young, happy and ambitious producer, desperate for a record deal. In the second part, we see him attain unimaginable success. And then in the third part, his beloved mother Donda dies and West becomes increasingly erratic — hanging out with Donald Trump, talking about running for president — until in one scene, he becomes so manic that Coodie, devastated at the state of his friend, puts down the camera, and turns it off.
This documentary was released earlier this year, illustrating with total clarity how poor mental health has corroded West’s mind and life. And yet despite that, and despite all the alleged hyperawareness of mental health these days, there is a bewildering resistance to seeing West’s behaviour as a symptom of his illness. Rather, people seem determined to see it as a reflection of him as a person.
I’m Jewish, but when I read West’s posts I didn’t feel offended. I just felt sad that an artist so talented is now so clearly out of his tree. Maybe West really does think Diddy is being controlled by Jewish people. Or maybe that reflects his true feelings as much as that man in hospital was genuinely turned on by Richard and Judy. “Being bipolar doesn’t make you racist,” people shout on Twitter. Not necessarily, but poor mental health makes you say a lot of crazy stuff, because it’s not about being sexily impetuous or soulfully sensitive. It’s about being out of your fucking mind. And I get that’s not special or sparkly, but then, tuberculosis is a lot less pretty than some of those Victorian novels made it sound. Illness sucks.
Before I went into hospital, I was terrified of a homeless man who hung out near my school and would shout at me about Jesus while I waited for the bus. But I harboured an intense fascination with women like Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf — the usual folks overly intense teenage girls tend to be drawn towards. After I left hospital, I realised I’d been making a false distinction, between Good Mental Illness and Bad Mental Illness. Good Mental Illness was the kind I could fetishise, memorising Plath’s last poem, pouring over Woolf’s late letters. Bad Mental Illness was the kind I crossed the street to avoid, because it smelled bad. And yet, mental illness destroyed all these people’s lives, no matter how talented or eloquent. You can’t fetishise one and condemn the other.
Maybe it’s because West is so wealthy and famous that people are unwilling to make the allowances for him that they demand for themselves when they take a mental health day. He doesn’t look the part, because only photogenic teens and twentysomethings with good eyeliner suffer from mental illness, not egocentric fortysomethings who behave like arseholes.
Yet I would bet that many of the same people who are demanding West be held accountable for his actions would be horrified at the idea of sending a mentally ill person who commits a terrible crime to prison. He should be sent to a psychiatric hospital, they would say. That is correct, and the same is true of West. He doesn’t need punishment — he needs help.