December 9, 2022 - 3:15pm

In the space of a few months Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, has gone from world-famous rapper to appearing on Alex Jones’s InfoWars praising Hitler. It’s not clear if he will ever recover reputationally from the stigma of this episode.

Here’s the problem: it’s no secret that West has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition that could lead to periods of mania and strange or anti-social behaviour. Mental health awareness, as it’s often called, has never been more prominent in public discourse. But does awareness equate to understanding? And are we reserving it for only the most palatable cases?

Writer Freddie deBoer joined me in the UnHerd studio to wade through the issue. deBoer documented his own experience of bipolar disorder after a highly public manic episode in 2017 saw him shunned from his job as a journalist. If anyone can shed some light onto this story, it’s him.

deBoer begins by laying out the problem with the American public’s approach to the mentally ill. With the help of social media ‘awareness raising’ and Hollywood narrativising, so-called ‘mental health ambassadors’ have romanticised mild conditions such as anxiety which for the most part do not cause the person to transgress social norms or cease to function within society. 

The irony, as deBoer points out, is that this increased appreciation of the relatively small struggles of those with high-functioning mental illness has decreased our ability to understand severe cases. By insisting, for example, that mental illness does not necessarily make a person violent by calling this ‘stigma’, deBoer says that we have lost compassion for those whose mental health does in fact make them prone to violence. 

“It is now considered ableist to participate in stigma about mental illness[…]So, there’s a very strange process that’s been happening whereby the desire to normalise mental illness has meant that the default picture of what a mentally ill person is has become more and more normal. In other words, as you normalise mental illness, at least in the way that we’re doing it, you push the people who are suffering the most deeply from mental illness to the side and you foreground people who have the least problems[…] The spotlight has shifted from people with schizophrenia, people with bipolar disorder, people with schizoaffective disorder etc., to people with more minor, manageable conditions.”
- Freddie deBoer

deBoer also links this shift in attitudes to an increasingly polarised public discourse. On Twitter, he says, we seek clean breaks between good and evil. Anti-social behaviour or breaches of social norms caused by mental illness are too destabilising to this binary system. In the world of saints and bigots, he reckons, there can be no room for complicating factors.

“I think people want to live in a morally convenient universe. I think that they want to live in a universe where they can always completely condemn or completely exonerate where they don’t have to ask themselves hard questions about who is to be forgiven and who isn’t to be. […] I think that we have completely destroyed the idea of a nuanced moral perspective.”
- Freddie deBoer

In the case of Kanye West, he says, latching onto anti-Semitism is not a surprise. While in mental health facilities, deBoer himself witnessed something similar himself:

“Psychotic delusions tend to borrow from previously existing conspiracy theories […] The nature of schizophrenia, in particular, but potentially mania also, is to see shadowy forces that are arrayed, that are committing crimes and are doing bad things that will hurt you, eventually. You’re very likely to borrow the language and the explanations and the theories of the conspiracy movements around you. And I can tell you from personal experience, there’s a lot of people in mental illness facilities, mental health facilities, who believe in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, because anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are some of the oldest in the world. They’re some of the most prevalent in the world.”
- Freddie deBoer

As in his own case, deBoer thinks fame has accelerated West’s breakdown. Living a public life with little privacy and legions of fans and haters is a recipe for disaster for anyone vulnerable to mental illness, he says. Being briefly married into our real-life Truman Show, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, probably didn’t help either. 

deBoer also had some advice for those witnessing the Kanye car crash in real time. It’s all too easy, he warns, to boost the message of #BeKind on Twitter. But it takes real empathy and patience to treat the most unpleasant, unpalatable cases with kindness. If we can practice more forgiveness (and improve the social protections) for these cases, then maybe there is a path to social redemption for figures like Kanye West.

Flo Read is UnHerd‘s producer and a presenter for UnHerd TV.