Last week, Kanye West unveiled his new album, Ye, on which he raps (amongst other things) about Tristan Thompson, the Kardashians, and bipolar disorder, which he later confirmed that he was diagnosed with at age 39.
But like most things West does, his framing of bipolar disorder as a "superpower" on the track "Yikes" provoked a divisive reaction.
For some people, it is inspiring to see someone of his caliber talk so openly about mental illness. But for others, West calling bipolar disorder a superpower is akin to glamorising the illness, and his album art, which reads, "I hate being bipolar it’s awesome," trivialises what people who have bipolar disorder go through.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 2.6% of the US population suffers from bipolar, a disorder that causes dramatic shifts in someone's mood, energy, and ability to think clearly. So is West just owning his mental illness and acknowledging that it doesn't make him less-than as a person? Or is he celebrating and glamorising something that can be dangerous?
It's a complicated question, and depending on who you ask, there are a lot of different answers.
Matt Lundquist, LCSW, a psychotherapist based in New York City, says that on the one hand, because mental illness is still something that carries shame, he understands why someone would want to own it and celebrate it.
"Much more often than not, [mental illness] is used to put down a certain set of people rather than as a sincere part of a process of trying to help," he says. "We see that lately in the rhetorical distraction around mental illness in the gun-control debate ('We don't need to control guns, we just need to identify and restrain those with mental illness'). Which is all to say, I see the appeal of glamorising mental illness as an alternative to a pathology or hopelessness."
I think calling anything a superpower outside of the realm of fiction can be dangerous.
Matt Lundquist, LCSW
However, he says, calling bipolar disorder a "superpower" can have dangerous consequences. And, he clarifies, there's a difference between celebrating those strengths and making it seem as though a mental health disorder is such a superpower that you shouldn't seek treatment for it.
"It's meaningful to challenge stigma, to help people recognise that mental illness isn't simple, isn't a death sentence, isn't terrifying, can be managed and treated," he says. "I'm not sure Kanye is adding anything meaningful to that conversation. He's trivialising it — fetishising it, we might even say."
But Debra Kissen, PhD, a member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, says that she's not so certain that West talking about his bipolar disorder is all that dangerous.
"I’d say there’s so much stigma [around mental illness] that we kind of have a way to go before someone is like, 'Oh I can’t wait to get bipolar disorder' or anything like that," she says. "I'd be more worried about glamorising suicidal behaviour or glamorising cutting, or substance abuse, some of those more dangerous behaviours that would be more of a concern."
For Dr. Kissen, it seems as if West is inspiring people to see their mental illness as something that's not debilitating and that's just a part of them. Still, it's important to know that West is talking about an illness, as powerful as he may feel in trying to own it and not let it destroy him.
"If it is a superpower, it’s also a superpower that comes at a big cost," Dr. Kissen says.
It's not a coincidence that West uses the word "superpower" — those who suffer from bipolar disorder, Dr. Kissen says, often experience high-highs where they feel on top of the world, as if they can do anything. But on the other hand, they also go through lows, during which they might even contemplate suicide.
At the end of the day, whether or not West's way of talking about bipolar is helpful is a tricky question. But no matter how you feel, it's inarguable that West is provoking a conversation about bipolar disorder. Whether or not that conversation will promote better understanding of mental illnesses remains to be seen.
"I think his social commentary, as such, on this issue isn't good social commentary," Lundquist says. "As for his art I'm not sure. I do see art as a great context in which to promote a meaningful conversation. I hope it does that."
If you are experiencing mental health issues and are in need of support, please call the Mind on 0300-123-3393.