The problem with framing Kanye West’s ‘mental decline’

The problem with framing Kanye West’s ‘mental decline’
Rapper Kanye West has become the poster child for people living with bipolar disorder. (Photo: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images: Illustration: Vecteezy)

The media has chosen to link the celebrity rapper’s erratic actions and pronouncements to his diagnosis of living with bipolar disorder, but this is highly problematic for several reasons.

We had just about closed the “Wednesday of the year” (also known as October) when a news alert about a “mega-celebrity meeting mental health” caught my attention.

My curiosity was piqued in this, South Africa’s Mental Health Awareness Month, because the headline in the digital version of Britain’s The Times had clasped together two phrases with a colon which seemed so out of tune with how I anticipate news about mental illnesses to be framed that I had to click on it. The headline was “The fall of Kanye West: when mega-celebrity meets mental illness”.

No sooner had I clicked on the article when two giant photographs appeared alongside the piece by Josh Glancy. One was of West surrounded by the press, wearing an interesting expression in front of Donald Trump’s desk, and the other was of the back of him and another “influencer” donning T-shirts announcing “White Lives Matter”.

I am not going to get into West’s politics, the twice-impeached former American president or the events of 6 January, but what I am interested in is the juxtaposition of an American celebrity’s every (strange) action with a serious mental illness.

If you’re the type of person who likes to keep up to date with this kind of news, then you probably know that West has over time made some extremely inflammatory — if somewhat confusing — statements about race, politics and Jewish people both live on television and from his personal Twitter account.

As I see it, alongside his really excellent music (in the early years, at least), the rash “I’m about to say something that will leave you a bit nonplussed” move became a kind of signature trademark.

Celebrity perspectives

In 2005, I was a student in North Carolina in the US and completely mortified about what was happening some 1,500km away in Louisiana. I watched in horror as people gasped for air in the waters of Hurricane Katrina that swept all their belongings away. The only interview I remember from that poignant moment in US history was a jarring scene in which West declared on live national television that “George Bush hates black people”.

But being described as “confused”, “incoherent” and “toxically racist” in the same piece that draws on accounts about when he was officially diagnosed as “bipolar” (they must mean when he was diagnosed as living with bipolar disorder) and tracing the “roots of his decline” back to 2007, when he lost his mother Donda, is extremely stigmatising and inflammatory in itself.

Over the years, many a well-known person has shared their mental health journeys in ways that made their many fans and followers feel “seen”. Chrissy Teigen, Simone Biles, Demi Lovato and Michael Phelps have all shared their stories with the world.

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In the age of social media, the level of candidness with which celebrities speak about their conditions has undoubtedly helped to build a relatively healthy awareness of seeking treatment as well as finding and accepting the invaluable support of loved ones.

In 2021, several well-known South Africans “put faces to different mental illnesses” by tweeting about their mental health conditions in a bid to destigmatise mental ill health.

Musician Simphiwe Dana, radio presenter Melanie Bala and actor Mbali Ntuli took part in the social media thread, referring to the forms of treatment they’ve sought as a way to encourage others to find help. 

With one in every three South Africans living with a mental illness and only one in 10 accessing some form of treatment, according to statistics from the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, these efforts may go some way in helping people to take action.

Problematic framing

But putting a well-known face to a mental illness in the context of behaviour one could describe as “erratic” is doing more harm than anything else. 

Though not discrediting any of West’s work both as a musician and in helping to raise awareness of living with bipolar disorder, one does have to wonder about the ways in which the media has chosen to frame him since he was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2016. Tracing his “decline”, many a media outlet is fixatedly plastering “bipolar” all over his behaviour. 

These framing mechanisms,  such as images of him looking disgruntled when making statements one could also pin to his penchant for shock value, have caused distress to many people living with bipolar disorder.

The type of reporting on this specific case has given rise to a certain kind of “hatred” for West, who’s become a kind of “poster child for bipolar disorder and/or untreated mental illnesses”. One former fan, Canadian screenwriter Abdul Malik, recently told The Huffington Post that he used to be drawn to the rapper’s “candidness about life”, but in recent years has started to resent it.

“It is extremely harmful to people with bipolar disorder. Behaviour like this immediately changes how some people look at you… It just perpetuates the stigma that you’re going to fly off the handle eventually.”

With so many complexities at play, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how to manage reporting on West. What is clear, however, is that it is his aptitude for continuously making the headlines that warrants scrutiny.

Though mired in political, body-shaming, racist and anti-Semitic innuendo, the constant framing of it all as a consequence of a serious mental illness is proving harmful to more people than we realise. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Hello There says:

    What’s refreshing about Ye is that he is not pandering to the victim narrative. He is just an outright a**hole, bigot, and antisemite, at times, but he is not a victim…

  • Matsobane Monama says:

    Bipolar Mood Disorder mainly affects very very smart people. Legendary Rapper Kanye West 2nd only to Tupac Shakur is one of them. Anti Semitic, Bigot and Racist? For God sake he is a Sick Man.

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